In the agrarian state of Punjab, an average of two farmers have committed suicide a day in the last 18 years, an estimate based on multiple reports. These figures should have jolted the government machinery into addressing the issues of prices for crops, machinery investment and the resulting debt.

Instead, the farmers, their unions and experts across Punjab feel the major political parties seeking votes in the 2019 election have no substantial action plans to address farmers’ concerns.

Punjab accounts for 13 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha seats and they go to the polls on May 19, in the seventh and final phase of the election.

Sensing apathy of the political class towards their issues, widows of farmers have decided to take matters into their own hands. A group of them formed the Kisaan Mazdoor Khudkhushi Peedit Parivar Committee in 2017 and decided to contest this year’s election.

Their fight starts from one constituency this time – Bathinda. Veerpal Kaur, widow of a farmer standing as an independent, is challenging sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Vicious cycle of agriculture

About 80% of Punjab’s total geographical area of 5.03 million hectares is under cultivation and about 75% of its total population is involved in agriculture. The northern state, along with neighbouring Haryana, is known as the food bowl of India.

“The politicians say they want to significantly increase the income of farmers or double it but they can’t even ensure that we get back our investment,” Lachhman Singh, general secretary of Punjab’s Khet Mazdoor Sangh, a farm labour collective, said.

He contended that agriculture has become a vicious cycle for farmers – it is now heavily machine-based and input cost has increased consistently over the years, while returns have not kept pace.

“The support prices offered for crops have not increased at the same rate,” he said. “Thus the farmers are not able to even recover their investments and it is the same story year after year. This results in heavy debt for which they seek redress and in some cases it drives them to commit suicide. Why is there no one who offers to give us a better price for our crops as suggested by the Swaminathan Committee? It is because they do not want farmers to stop begging in front of them, for loan waivers.”

The Swaminathan Committee has recommended giving farmers a minimum support price that is 50% more than the cost of production.

Farmers in Punjab say agriculture has become a vicious cycle for them. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal

“Normal political thinking is that increase in irrigation facilities will lead to an increase in production, ending the woes of farmers,” said Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy expert. “Everyone, including politicians, says this. But Punjab gives you a lesson. Punjab has 98% assured irrigation which means that nearly every crop field gets an assured supply of water. The productivity of crops like rice and wheat is the highest in the world and yet it has become a hotbed of farmers suicides. How do you correlate this? This is something that no political leader, policymaker or expert is willing to explain.”

Sharma added, “This phenomenon also dispels the idea that agricultural distress in India is primarily because of lack of irrigation. If that’s the case, then why, in a state like Punjab there is high distress and suicide rate among farmers. There is hardly a day when we do not get reports of a farmer suicide in Punjab.”

Lachhman Singh claimed his group is not supporting any of the state’s mainstream parties in this election – the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiromani Akali Dal, Aam Aadmi Party – as farmers are disillusioned with them all. “I and thousands of other farmers thus prefer using NOTA,” he said, referring to the None of The Above option on the ballot.

Challenge mainstream parties

Now, though, widows of the farmers who have committed suicide are taking forward the fight for justice. Veerpal Kaur said the main reason behind her contesting the polls is that mainstream political parties have failed many like her. “It is time we come forward to work for ourselves,” she said.

She claimed there was a lot of pressure on her to withdraw her candidature, but her group managed to withstand that.

Kiranjit Kaur, convenor of the Kisaan Mazdoor Khudkhushi Peedit Parivar Committee, said though they have around 10,000 members, limited funds prevented them from putting up more candidates.

A farmer's widow is contesting the 2019 election in Bathinda. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal

Veerpal Kaur’s daughter, Diljyot, a college student, accompanies the campaign team in an autorickshaw as they travel in 18-20 villages a day. She distributes pamphlets, helps in gathering the crowd and collects money from villagers for their campaign.

“We don’t have big cars,” she said. “Our vehicle is a humble autorickshaw but it does help in garnering more attention from voters. My mother is an anganwadi worker and we have no money. Our entire campaign is based on crowdfunding. People give us as little as Rs 5 to Rs 5 in some cases.”

Diljyot said the autorickshaw costs them Rs 1,300 a day.

Threat of floods

In the last few months, Punjab has seen several protests by farmers. In January 2019, thousands of farmers protested against the cases filed against them for defaulting on loans, seeking compensation for families of those who have committed suicide and proper Minimum Support Prices for their crops. Similar protests were organised by different farmer groups in February and March as well. On May 14, the police in Chandigarh had to use water cannons to disperse farmers trying to enter the city.

“But even in the election year, no one cares,” said Succha Singh in Tindiwala village, a few hundred metres from the India-Pakistan border in Ferozepur area. “All they offer are assurances every election.”

He and his fellow villagers who live close to the border are not as scared of conflict with Pakistan as they are of flooding in the Sutlej river destroying their crops. “Sutlej floods destroy our crops and further pushes us in the debt trap,” he explained.

Ferozepur's farmers say flooding in the Sutlej river, which flows less than 500 metres away, is a major threat to their crops. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal

Mongabay India visited several constituencies of Punjab and found that in every area stories of farmers being driven into a debt trap and death are the same.

“I am yet to receive payment for my sugarcane crop of last year but I still have to pay interest on the loan I had taken for it,” said Jasdev Singh, an engineering graduate in Sangrur, while preparing his fields for this year’s sugarcane crop.

Why is he growing sugarcane again then? “There is no escape for us as there are no jobs for my qualification,” he replied. “There is nothing else to do.”

Sharma said all parties fighting the election in Punjab are doing no more than lip service for farmers. “This isn’t on the top of their agenda,” he said. “They are only promising quick fix arrangements but are not coming out with steps to address it in the long term.”

Stubble burning continues

Stubble burning in Punjab is often touted as one of the key reasons for air pollution in Delhi and adjoining regions. But despite orders by the courts, tribunals banning stubble burning and the governments promising policies to address it, the practice continues unabated.

Farmers burning their stubble to prepare their fields for the next crop. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal

Mongabay India saw numerous fields where stubble had recently been burnt or was being set on fire. Asked why they continued with the practice despite the authorities having announced measures to prevent it, the farmers said they cannot afford the high costs of the machines required for proper disposal of farm waste.

Makkhan Singh, a farmer in Faridkot region, said it is costlier for them to use machines to dispose of crop waste than burning it. “Why can’t governments simply give a bonus to us for properly disposing it?” he asked. “Using machines to get rid of it is of no benefit to us. Burning it takes just one or two days.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.