Agriculture

Farmers’ Distress in Maharashtra Spreads Even to Lucrative Crops

Agitating farmers have given the state until June 1 to organise a loan waiver and a minimum support price for all products, failing which they have threatened to commit mass suicide.

Kisan sangharsh yatra in progress. Credit: By special arrangement

Nashik/Latur: Oli ani sukhi, shetkaryancha maran, hech shasanacha dhoran. (Both hailstorms and droughts cause farmers to die. And this precisely is the government’s policy).

Oli and sukhi here, though, are euphemisms for the vagaries of weather and being starved of minimum support prices by the government of Maharashtra.

This is the refrain among farmers in the villages of Western Maharashtra, Khandesh, Vidarbha and Marathwada, each region different from the others in terms of the crops they grow and the returns they get from the markets. But rural distress is now growing across the state, no matter what the farmers produce.

Market yards in all the regions this season are flooded with ample harvests. Yet, from pulses to vegetables, cereals to fruits, farmers are finding it difficult to recover their investments, despite the lush monsoon of last year. Some crops were exceptions, whose farmers were almost immune to economic problems and market ups and downs – grapes was one of them. But when, on April 22, the first grape farmer committed suicide, his fellow farmers were shocked.

Grape farmer Manik Randive hanged himself on his farm when he could not recover losses on his two acre farm in Dindori in Nashik district. It should have rung alarm bells for the government but when it didn’t farmers from Waahegaon Saral in the district arrived in large numbers at a gram sabha five days later with nooses in their hands, threatening mass suicides.

Nashik’s vineyards are world renowned and usually the farmer recovers almost the last bit of his investment (it costs Rs 2.75  lakh to plant one acre) with just the first batch of exports to European countries. This time round, the region’s farmers have not been able to export either grapes or onions, to Europe. The other markets are Pakistan and Bangladesh and as Dinanath Aher, a grape farmer from Shirdi says, these too remained closed.

“Pakistan was a big market for us for both draksh (grapes) and kanda (onion). But the continuing skirmishes on the border after the surgical strike have closed that market to us. As for the European market, the demonetisation during the month of the rabi season delayed our sowing operations. There was just no cash when it was required. So the grapes matured in the wrong week of the season. As a result not only many berries developed cracks, the grapes were also less sweet than they should have been. Chile invaded Europe with its larger, sweeter grapes ahead of us this season. We have all gone bust.’’

The agitating farmers have put the government on notice – they have given the state until June 1 to address their distress, including a loan waiver and a minimum support price for all products or they have threatened they will commit mass suicides.

Less dramatic but of more concern to both government and people across Maharashtra is their threat to go on a ‘strike’. More than 70 villages across north Maharashtra have joined this call for strike which simply means that the farmers will not harvest or bring their produce to the agricultural produce marketing committees across the state.

“Farmers had done this a couple of years ago when they refused to plant paddy (rice) for two seasons until government addressed their grievances. But if they do this now with all the crops, the people and government of Maharashtra could be the ones in distress with no food in the local market and prices soaring for imports from other states,‘’ says Atul Deulgaonkar, himself a farmer and an environment activist who is closely monitoring government policy on agriculture.

Government policy has been pretty lax vis-à-vis support prices to farmers. When chief minister Devendra Fadnavis declared his government had procured huge quantities of tuar daal at Rs 4,000 per quintal, farmers were quick to point out they had had better prices in past years – almost Rs 6,000 per quintal. This myth-busting by farmers led BJP state president Raosaheb Danve to call them ingrates – he used the Marathi pejorative  ‘saale‘ – leading to tremendous anger among large sections of the farming community.

The opposition parties have been quick to tap into this anger. Large numbers of leaders and activists from opposition parties have being marching as part of a Kisan Sangharsh Yatra in different parts of the state; the next phase will be resumed on June 11. The opposition has been demanding a loan waiver for farmers but Fadnavis has turned down the demand that will cost the government upwards of Rs 3,000 crore. Instead he has said his party will undertake a Samvad  (dialogue) yatra with farmers who remain unimpressed, particularly after a much poorer state like Uttar Pradesh has found a way out to write off farmers loans by raising corporate bonds.

The present rural distress is clearly visible across market yards in the state. Sudhakar Shinde, a soybean farmer from Latur, says, “I am sitting at the edge of my field looking at my soybean crop and wondering if it is worth it to harvest and take to the market. Or should I simply let it go waste and plant a kharif crop in a few weeks.”

That is because, like tuar daal, even soybean at Rs 5,000 or less per quintal is fetching far lower prices this season. So is chilli, which has crashed from Rs 150 per tonne last year to just Rs 15 this season. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, major chilli growing states, have come to the rescue of their farmers but there is no word yet from the Maharashtra government about bailing out farmers from Chandrapur, the major chilli growing area in Vidarbha, who are suffering due to the ridiculously low price. Same is the case with Mozambican  (sweet lime) from Marathwada, pomegranates from western Maharashtra, coriander, cabbage and assorted cash crops across the state.

Shinde has borrowed the idea of laying his soybean crop to waste from tomato and brinjal farmers in Nashik who uprooted their amply flowering plants because of low returns and planted soybean instead. But with low returns on this crop too their distress is mounting.

Shiwaji Sonawane, another farmer from Latur who also deals in seeds and fertilisers, blames just one thing: demonetisation. When it was suddenly announced, it threw the sowing cycle during the rabi season out of gear, but now, even six months later it continues to cause severe problems. The state’s co-operative banks have not recovered from the cash crunch and are in no position to disburse loans. A case in point is the Nashik District Central Co-operative Bank which has Rs 300 crore of farmers’ deposits but no liquidity and neither the RBI nor the state government is willing to bail it out.

He adds that the lush monsoon last year was of no use. “A good monsoon can help only so far. First the demonetisation caused a cash crunch and now lack of minimum support price has destroyed our rich harvests.”

Aher is blunt in his criticism: “This government’s policies are not pro-farmer, but pro-trader and pro-imports. As we were ready to sow here, the government began placing its import orders (for tuar daal) under pressure from traders. And now, as we are ready to harvest our own crops, they are offloading containers full of pulses, onion and other edibles at the docks in Mumbai. Today, the situation is such that even if the trader wants to help us, he can’t as his hands are tied.’’

Aher says the situation is so bad that many young farmers and their children are quitting agriculture in search of sustainable incomes and simply to escape the endless cycle of debts and suicides. “At the moment farmers have only declared they will go on a strike so that the government addresses their grievances. But if this situation continues, we will grow only enough to feed our families. Then all the market yards for agricultural produce will have to shut down forever.”