The sins of commission

There is no such thing as a crisis in agriculture.” Meet Darshan Singh Sanghera, vice-president of Punjab’s powerful Arhtiyas Association.

The sins of commission

It’s Not us: Arhtiyas believe the real villains are the unions that defend farmers’ rights.

P Sainath

P Sainath

There is no such thing as a crisis in agriculture.” Meet Darshan Singh Sanghera, vice-president of Punjab’s powerful Arhtiyas Association. Arhtiyas are commission agents, a link between farmers and buyers of their produce, who arrange for the auction and delivery of harvested crop to buyers. They are also moneylenders with a long history in that trade. In recent years, they’ve emerged as input dealers as well. All of which means they wield great control over farmers in this state.

They are also politically powerful, counting members of the legislative assembly among their brethren. In July last year, they honoured Chief Minister  Amarinder Singh with the title of Fakhr-e-Quam. It came soon after the Chief Minister had said it would be difficult to waive the debt the farmers owed arhtiyas.

A study on Indebtedness among Farmers and Agricultural Labourers in Rural Punjab says a fifth of Punjab’s rural debt was owed to commission agents and moneylenders. 

Interestingly, Darshan Singh dismisses agrarian distress as “all due to the spending habits of the farmer. That is what lands them in trouble. We help them with money to buy inputs. Also, with sundry expenses pertaining to weddings, medical, etc. When the farmer’s harvest is ready, he brings it and gives it to the arhtiya. We clean the crop, bag it, deal with the government, the banks, the market.” The government pays the agents 2.5 per cent of the value of total procurement of wheat and paddy.  The official side of their activity, involving the state, is governed by the Punjab State Agricultural Marketing Board. The farmers receive their payment through these agents. All this is apart from the income the arhtiyas derive from moneylending. 

We reached Darshan Singh’s Grain Market office in Barnala town soon after visiting Jodhpur village in the same block. There, Ranjit and Balwinder Singh (farmers) recounted the very public suicides of their relatives Baljit Singh and his mother Balbir Kaur within an hour of each other on April 25, 2016. “They were resisting the attachment of their land by an arhtiya who had arrived with a court order and many police personnel in tow,” said Balwinder. “Plus, many officials of the local administration and several goons of the arhtiyas.” Almost 150 people — to attach the family’s two acres. 

“In Jodhpur village alone,” says Balwinder, “there are some 450 households. Of these, just 15-20 are debt free.” The debt has seen farmers losing land to arhtiyas.

“Relations between arhtiyas and farmers are not so bad,” claims  Darshan Singh. “And there is no crisis in farming. Look at me, I inherited just eight acres. Now I have 18. The media sometimes blows the issue out of proportion. Government compensation for suicides simply encourages more of them. If even one family gets compensation, it inspires others. Stop these compensations altogether and the suicides will stop.” 

For him, the villains are the unions that defend farmers’ rights. The worst offender is the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakonda), which is strong in this region and a tough nut to crack. Its members turn out in large numbers to block land attachments and seizures. Even when the arhtiyas have been accompanied by gun-toting underlings.

Meanwhile, debt-driven suicides are mounting. No less than 8,294 farmers took their lives between 2000 and 2015, says a study presented last year before the Vidhan Sabha’s Committee on Agrarian Suicides. The report, titled Farmer and Labourer Suicides in Punjab, says 6,373 agricultural labourers also killed themselves in the same period. 

That was in just six of the state’s 22 districts, say its authors, researchers of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana. The study, commissioned by the state government’s revenue department, found that 83 per cent of all these suicides were largely debt-driven. 

“Nobody is committing suicide in helplessness,” asserts Teja Singh.  “Farming has been yielding good returns these past 10 years. Arhtiyas have in fact lowered lending rates.” Down to 1 per cent a month (12 per cent a year), he says.  In village after village, though, farmers spoke of the rate being 1.5 per cent (18 per cent a year) or higher. Teja Singh, an  arhtiya, was involved in the Jodhpur village battle that saw the mother and son kill themselves in full public view. “Only 50 per cent of all these farm suicides are genuine,” he scoffs. 

However, he speaks with refreshing candour of arhtiya politics. There are factions, yes. “But whichever party comes to power, their man becomes president of our association.” 

The state government’s October 2017 loan waiver was limited, layered and conditional. It applies to what farmers owe cooperative banks and public sector or even private banks. And that too, has unfolded in a narrow, restricted way. To date, the government has not waived a paisa of the Rs 17,000 crore farmer debt owed to the arhtiyas.

A 2010 study recommended that this “system, in which the payment of the farmers’ produce is made through the commission agents, should be scrapped.” The study on Commission Agent System in Punjab Agriculture by researchers of the PAU called for “direct payment to the farmers for the procurement of their produce”. 

The story of commission agents and farmers has a resonance across the country. But there is a novel element here. Unlike most of their fraternity elsewhere, Darshan Singh Sanghera, Teja Singh and many like them are not from the Bania or other trader castes. They are Jat Sikhs. Jats are late entrants to the trade. But they are doing well. Today, of the 47,000 arhtiyas in  Punjab, 23,000 are Jats. “In the cities, we are not the biggest group, says Darshan Singh. 

Most of the Jats began as junior partners to Bania arhtiyas. Then branched out on their own. But why would the Banias want Jats as partners at all? “When it comes to money recovery and the risk of getting roughed up,” says Darshan Singh, “the Bania arhtiyas get scared.” The Jat arhtiyas are not so squeamish. “We get the money back,” he says calmly. 

But perhaps the impact of that partnership with the Banias still shows in limited ways. In Darshan Singh’s office, we ask his son Onkar Singh about the five portraits on the wall. The first two are of Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Nanak. The last two are of Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur. The central one in this lineup of five is of Shiva and Parvati with a baby Ganesha. How did that come to be?

“We have entered this profession, we have to adapt to its ways,” he says.

By agreement with People’s Archive of Rural India

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