Opinion | Middlemen in farmers’ clothing have taken Punjab hostage, rendered golden state fallow

The word ‘farmer’ in Punjab is like a rainforest. Predators often use it as camouflage to hunt.

The runaway success of the ’70s Green Revolution has come to haunt the state in the last couple of decades. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and ‘modern’ farming techniques harmed the soil, bred cancer, took away its prime spot in wheat and a few other crops, and pushed the young, rural population suddenly flush with cash to an abiding embrace of drugs.

But even more gnawing has been the spawning of an overclass of middlemen or arthiyas. As the small and marginal farmers in Punjab wither, these middlemen get fattened by minimum support price (MSP) and free water and electricity at the taxpayers’ expense, sell it to distressed farmers at a price, choke them with loans, and buy more bungalows and SUVs for themselves.

To top all that, they call themselves ‘farmers’ and control the political narrative. The ongoing so-called ‘farmers protest’ is created and run by arthiyas. Greed for political power has made them share the stage with downright anti-national and secessionist Khalistanis.

The storming of India’s Capital, New Delhi, and the Red Fort on Republic Day was a demo of how far the hooligans are willing to go. Smashing hundreds of Jio network towers in Punjab gives one an idea of the shadowy forces behind the protests which want to cripple Indian big business and see its rivals triumph in the global 5G war.

Waging an information war from benevolent nations like Canada, the US and the UK, and backed by Pakistan’s ISI, some elements of the movement are also trying to drive a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs, who are umbilically joined by a great civilisation.

Holding BJP leaders hostage for 13 hours recently is a continuation of that anarchic trail of the predators in the garb of ‘farmers’.

Even while Chief Minister Amarinder Singh grows uncomfortable with the direction of the protests, his party Congress continues to flirt with separatist, hoodlum elements. Even Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP’s former NDA ally Shiromani Akali Dal have sided with the arthiyas who control the flow of money and power in Punjab.

Make no mistake, these middlemen are not farmers, nor are they friends of Punjab’s farmers.

In his book, Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, Amandeep Sandhu puts the arthiyas in perspective.

“According to a survey published in January 2016 by Panjabi University, Patiala, 89 percent of Panjab farmers are under debt. The outstanding debt in rural Panjab stood close to Rs 70,000 crore, of which about one-fifth was from loans extended by private moneylenders – arthiyas,” he writes. “Punjab has 20,000 arthiyas and the extent of farm indebtedness has doubled in the past ten years. Each arthiya works with around 300 farmers. While the arthiyas are strengthened by their position on the right side of the law, support for farmers and labourers remains scarce.”

Then comes the irony of the Congress robustly backing the protests. In April 2002, the Congress government in Punjab formed an expert panel to revive the state economy reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Congress’s own poster-boy of reforms, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, headed the panel.

In its report on 31 July, the group of experts advised severing power subsidies to farmers. It said the subsidy had put an unsustainable burden on the state’s budget. Most rich farmers, including politicians, are beneficiaries of the power subsidy. The subsidy also promoted water-guzzling paddy cultivation, the Montek-led panel said, alarmingly depleting Punjab’s groundwater levels.

A draft report by the Central Ground Water Board in 2019 said Punjab would run out of water even 100 meters underground in just ten years.

Punjab is a physically and spiritually golden ground made fallow by greed and incendiary politics. As next year’s election draws closer, the predators have emerged, and so has an opportunity to rid the state of them through a historic mandate. EVM machines await the harvest.