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Tractor: Punjab’s most wanted

Chandigarh, Oct. 4: How about a tractor for a status symbol'

For the world’s best batsman nothing less than a Ferrari would do, but for farmers in Punjab — big or small, rich or not so rich — it is the tractor that is most wanted.

Once considered a necessity, the vehicles have now virtually taken over the countryside. But owning one is more to enhance status than actually needing it or even being able to pay it.

According to a study by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agriculture University, there are over 2.6 lakh tractors that are “not needed” by farmers. “It is a tale that should come to an end. Farmers have been taking loans to buy tractors without realising the after effects of not being able to repay them,” a university official said.

Punjab’s share of the total tractors in the country stands at 25 per cent. There are nearly 4.1 lakh tractors in the state, with many lying idle for most part of the year. With the net area available for agriculture put at 4,268 hectares — 2.5 per cent of the total area in the country — Punjab needs only 1.5 lakh tractors. The price of a tractor depends on its horsepower and a new one can cost between Rs 80,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh.

“Tractors are not being used for the purpose they are meant for by farmers in the state,” says university vice-chancellor K.S. Aulakh. “The continued buying of the farming machine is also forcing the farmer to become more debt-ridden than ever as he is not getting the desired income he so desperately needs to repay his old loans.”

Growth in the per capita income of the Punjab farmer has been absorbed mostly by the growth in per capita consumption expenditure and the rising standard of living of the community. Very little surplus cash is left to finance modern, market-supplied farm inputs. So, farmers have to borrow huge sums regularly.

“The sheer scale of these borrowings leaves little room for complacency about the long-term security of agriculture in Punjab,” a university official said.

According to him, small and semi-medium farmers bear the worst burden of agricultural debt.

Debt per acre for farmers with small holdings stands at almost twice the statewide figure, which is somewhere near Rs 11,000. “Farmers are also borrowing considerable sums from middlemen in grain markets and other informal-sector moneylenders to meet social expenditures,” he added.

The tractor craze is evident from the special bazaars that have mushroomed in several places. While more farmers are trying to sell off their machines to generate cash to meet social commitments, small farmers are pawning everything they own to possess a tractor. Some lend them out for weddings to ferry guests.

“I barely earn enough to feed my family of six. Earlier, I used to hire a tractor but now I have purchased one. I will have to find good grooms for my two daughters. Having a tractor will help in finding them. People will now come to my house to seek the hands of my daughters. The tractor standing outside will do the trick for me,” said Ropar farmer Baljit Singh, who owns 11 acres of land.

The inability to repay tractor loans has even led to many farmers committing suicide. In Chotian, in Lehra block of southern Punjab’s Sangrur district — an untidy cluster of a couple of hundred mud-and-brick homes — the residents own over 100 tractors. But inability to pay the loans has led to the death of over two dozen farmers over the last six years. The village has become a symbol of all that has gone wrong with the state’s agriculture sector.

Punjab Agriculture University officials say farmers owning less than 15 acres should not buy tractors. “Small farmers have also been found to spend more money on maintaining tractors than they would do by hiring people to work on their fields. We have proposed to the chief minister to ban those owning less than 15 acres from buying tractors. We have to save the small farmer form ruining himself. The rich can do whatever they can as they can pay for it,” a senior official said.

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