A New Agrarian Season, but an Old and Futile Question for the Indian Farmer

Farmers are once again wondering which crop will fetch them guaranteed good returns.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Nagpur: What do you grow on your farm in the coming season that will fetch you good returns?

This is a question millions of peasant farmers, particularly those with small holdings and no protective irrigation, are likely to ask themselves this month, possibly with no answers.

They’ll go back to what they have been growing on their fields thus far, year after year, hoping for the best, knowing it could be worse.

As the 2017-18 agrarian season sets itself on the beleaguered, indebted, sullied and fatigued farming communities across the country, there is much to learn and reflect from the season just gone by.

First, that bumper production does not always mean profits. As the tomato, onion, red gram or paddy-wheat-cotton farmers would tell you. Or those growing oranges or sweet limes.

Second, the monsoon, even when bountiful, does not necessarily bring relief for the peasantry.

Third, a drought is not just a water-food-productivity crisis. It exists even when there’s an abundance. And today, it is something of an inseparable part of an unequal, uncertain world.

To deviate a bit from the make-belief world of those currently in power and their army of trolls:

The new year saw job cuts across the blue chip, banking and media industries – they all woke up to their big-fat-crowded work spaces and suddenly realised that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘masterstroke’ demonetisation move was a beautiful reason to cut some flab on that swollen tummy, no matter that the flab thrown into the dustbin are breathing, living men and women. Then, April saw the CEOs who helped those companies cut that unwanted fat get steady pay hikes. Like the return gift at a birthday party. May again brought news that thousands of contractual employees in the IT world would get pink slips – such is the retrenchment fury that #pinksliprevolution is now trending on Twitter as a popular hashtag.

Those who got the seventh pay scale as a privilege are steering the commodity prices in the markets to higher slabs. The food and luxury items are dearer, as the new pay scales flow out of the closet and into the markets to push the demand. Between, jobs – for daily wagers or degree holders – are a mirage.

Back on the arid farms, tillers wonder which crop could fetch them guaranteed good returns. It’s futile to ask that question, they know. They asked themselves that question last year and ultimately went back to planting what they did the previous years. It’s a summer sport, a Russian roulette, where the player almost always ends up losing. In Vidarbha or Marathwada, the farmer suicide capital of India, land owners have a toss between soybeans and cotton: either one leaves them indebted by the year end. In the southern states, paddy growers are facing a major crisis as a failed northeast monsoon hit their yields and plummeting prices turned the staple food non-lucrative. In Punjab and Haryana, wheat growers are in crisis that seems to be worsening like the vexed Kashmir issue.

The difference this time is that Modi just completed three years in office and we are yet to see a rural resurgence that he promised us grandly from the ramparts of the Red Fort the year he wrested the office from a listless UPA. Peasants, who voted him in big numbers, cutting across castes and religions, are still standing by him, but are getting increasingly impatient. After all, promises have a shelf life for realisation – in the case of a popular prime minister that shelf life could be slightly more but not endless.

MP Raju Shetty, leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, an ally of the BJP in Maharashtra, is on an ‘atmaklesh’ (self-repentance) march across western Maharashtra for having asked the peasants to vote for Modi’s party in 2014 – his gravest mistake.

Soybean prices plummeted to an all-time low in October-November – from nearly Rs 6,000 a quintal in 2015-16 to Rs 2,300 in 2016-17; perishables were about to enter the markets when Modi demanded a sacrifice through demonetisation. The result – vegetable prices across India collapsed to such low levels that the growers ran tractors over the standing tomato crops, threw them on the roads or sold the commodities at massive losses.

Urban consumers continued to pay higher prices. Retailers and wholesalers – most of whom are BJP backers – made merry and pocketed profits not seen in the last ten years.

Cotton prices held on to a little over the minimum support prices, but only just. Today even those prices are falling as rupee appreciates.

The last hope was red gram or tur, the poor man’s protein. The Centre did not expect a bumper tur crop, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh told parliament some time ago.

Before the new crop flooded markets, the government opened the tur imports glutting the local markets and gutting the domestic producers.

At least a couple lakh tons of tur produce is still lying in the APMC markets in Maharashtra waiting to be procured by reluctant central agencies like NAFED at a minimum support price.

In the open markets, prices hover around Rs 3,000/quintal. Compare that with the last year’s average Rs 10,000/quintal. This was the first year in many years when beleaguered farmers reaped a bumper yield, particularly in central India. But they were doomed by the markets that gave them no prices and a state that was non-responsive.

In Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere, tur prices are below the support price. In the APMCs where the NAFED stepped in to buy the crop a tad late, the farmers are waiting for the agency to buy their crop and pay them their money. The waiting period is anywhere between a month to 45 days.

In Washim district of Maharashtra, farmers were made to line up to get their tokens at APMC markets to sell their tur produce, as a fledgling state government finally got an extension from the Centre to buy more produce from the farmers through the central agency NAFED. The long queues of disparaging farmers in the simmering summer temperature forced the district administration to press for the deployment of police – thankfully not the army – at the markets to control the mobs.

This is an unusual summer – merely another, that follows the raising of toast in Modi administration’s ivory towers for the country’s record-breaking bumper production.

Chilli prices – like that of all other commodities – sank to their lowest in a decade as a bumper crop led to a glut; the growers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana burnt their crops in disgust.

With prices crashing by 60% over the last year to Rs 3500-5000 a quintal and cold storages already overflowing with the produce, the Andhra government recently announced a price support scheme of Rs 15/kg for farmers till June-end, but with a catch that each farmer will get this support for a maximum of 20 quintals (2,000 kg). The scheme came much too late, when the growers had already sold nearly 70% of their produce to private traders in the open markets at depleted prices.

Almost every crop – including fruits – sold at record low prices this year and neither the Centre nor the states intervened to stem the free fall of the commodity prices. Latest to suffer price slump is the sweet lime. The prices last year hovered around Rs 15,000 per ton. This year they are at Rs 3,000-5,000 per ton.

In the southern states, things have come to a naught, as prevailing drought rips through the socio-economic fabric, pushes migrations and triggers chaos.

Elsewhere, too, the farmer is worried; more so in the dry land zones like Vidarbha, Marathwada and north Karnataka. How do you break even and fulfil some of the bare minimum needs of your family, leave aside the beautiful idea of doubling farm incomes by 2022?

This is the big question the country of peasantry wants an answer to but the republic of zealots does not.

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist, writer, researcher, cricket enthusiast and a PARI volunteer, and author of the book A Village Awaits Doomsday.

Join The Discussion