Agricultural indebtedness legislation a game changer for Punjab farmers

The introduction of “Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Bill, 2016” by the SAD-BJP government has added another feather to the cap of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal who have emerged as champion of farmers’ cause through their series of farmer friendly initiatives.

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The bill primarily focusses on providing a framework for assessment and settlement of non-institutional agricultural debt, which has been a major burden on debt ridden farmers of Punjab. At a time when the interest is mounting on the debtor farmers, the provisions of new aim at directly benefiting the farmers who have already paid an amount equal to double the principal amount. The relevance of new legislation can be gauged from the fact that the agriculture indebtedness in Punjab at present is estimated to be over Rs 36,000 crore, including Rs 12,000 crore of non-institutional loans advance given by arhtiyas, the remaining being the institutional loans. Besides, there is non-agriculture rural indebtedness of another Rs 27,000 crore.

Objectives

By and large it’s a one-time settlement (OTS) scheme for debt-related disputes of farmers with arhtiyas (commission agents). Apart from reducing stress on farmers and agriculture labour through fair settlement of debt-related disputes, it would also reduce litigations in courts and harassment to parties.

The provisions of legislation empower the government to prescribe a maximum rate of interest which can be charged by the creditors on non-institutional loans provided by them. Each creditor will be required issue an authenticated passbook to the debtor.

How it would be implemented

District level forums and tribunals would be set up under the new Act all over the state. These bodies would have powers to declare the debt as having been discharged and waive the entire loan amount with interest. These forums would also have the power to order the release of any property pledged or mortgaged by a debtor whose debt is once decided as having been paid.

With the implementation of act, all disputes regarding loan amount upto Rs 15 lakh which are pending in civil courts would be handed over to these Forums. The forums now will have to decide disputes within three months, and civil courts will have no jurisdiction over such issues.

The district forums to be headed by a former or serving district or additional district session judge, will have two other members – one representative of farming community and another of money lenders. The appellant authority in such cases – tribunal will be headed by a former high court judge and will comprise two more members, who will have a three-year term.

Procedure for seeking relief
Any debtor or creditor of agricultural loan will be eligible to move a petition before the district forum for settlement of his/her debt. If dissatisfied with the order, he or she can file an appeal before the tribunal. As per the provisions, the orders of the tribunal can be challenged in high court.

According to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal the new legislation was the need of hour to to safeguard the interests of oppressed farmers through a regulated mechanism. “The legislation would go a long way in bringing much needed relief to debt-ridden farmers on one hand and regulating the process of money lending on the other,” he said.

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