IN A HUGE POLITICAL GAMBLE, Punjab's Amarinder Singh government today completely left out the entire farm labourer category, which comprises a large number of Dalits, from its loan waiver announcements, a move that is likely to incense the poorest of the poor in Punjab's villages.
Coming after days of speculation and near daily suicides in Punjab, the Congress government's decision was focussed only on farmers, whether it was about total crop loan waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh for small and marginal farmers, or Rs 2 lakh relief for farmers with loans above that amount.
So much so that even the families of landless agricultural labourers, or khetmazdoors, whose earning member committed suicide, will not gain a single paisa as a result of the Chief Minister's exertions to help suicide-affected households.
An average agriculture labourer's family earns a mere Rs 81,452 in a year, with more than 90% of it coming from hiring out labour in agriculture.
Amarinder Singh said the government will take over the "crop loans from institutional sources" of the families of those farmers who have committed suicide but his entire speech in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha made no reference to any plans of his government for the families of those labourers in villages who committed suicide.
Since Amarinder Singh claimed the decision about loan waiver and other aspects was based on the interim report of the Expert Group led by agricultural economist Dr T Haque, it was not clear if the entire demographic of agricultural labourers was left out by the Expert Group, too, though those privy to the Expert Group's deliberations said that could not be the case.
Incidentally, and ironically, the oversight is all the more glaring as the government's loan waiver decision came within hours of the latest field survey on the issue – Indebtedness Among Farmers and Agricultural Labourers – conducted by renowned economist Prof Gian Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala, alongwith other researchers.
The survey underlined that a shocking 80.07 percent of farm labourers in Punjab are living below the poverty line. While the average annual income of a farmer's family is Rs 2.92 lakh – ranging from Rs 12.03 lakh for large farm-size owner farmer's family to Rs 1.39 lakh for marginal farmer's family – an average agriculture labourer's family earns a mere Rs 81,452 in a year, with more than 90% of it coming from hiring out labour in agriculture.
The survey underlined that a shocking 80.07 percent of farm labourers in Punjab are living below the poverty line.
At a time when the Congress is trying to consolidate the Dalit vote bank, and on a day when the BJP made an almost surgical strike on the Dalit vote bank by nominating Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit face, as its presidential candidate, Amarinder's move to leave out agricultural labourers altogether from his speech and decision seemed a particularly brave political step.
Most of the debt of agricultural labourers, who are being considered even more vulnerable than small farmers in many cases, is owed to non-institutional sources, a category completely left out in Amarinder Singh’s speech.
In fact, an official press release issued by the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) did not even mention the word "labour” or "labourers.”
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