On a late March morning at the agriculture produce marketing committee (APMC) yard in Akola, the scene resembles a camping site more than a place of trade and business.
Hundreds of farmers are waking up on their makeshift beds hoisted on top of trucks and tractors covered in bright tarpaulin sheets. They are dismantling their mosquito nets, rolling up their beds, and collecting water in buckets to perform their morning ablutions.
Some are cooking on a small kerosene stove while others on makeshift chulhas of bricks fired with discarded plywood and cardboards.
There is an ease in the manner in which they are going about their chores – an ease which can come only from routine.
“I have been here for a month,” says Yogesh Gawande, a 38-year-old farmer from Bhendgaon village, 50 kms from Akola.
For lunch, Gawande usually cooks a one-pot meal of rice, dal and some vegetables on a small kerosene stove. On good days, he makes chawli usal, a curry made of black eyed beans. On days he doesn’t feel like cooking, he eats jhunka bhakar, a traditional dish made of gram flour and jowar, at a not-so-clean food stall next to the APMC gate.
At night, he sleeps on the tractor that holds his produce. A lodge is too expensive, and theft is a risk if the truck is left unguarded. Several farmers have complained about theft of tur from their vehicles.
While the night provides relief from the torrid heat – Vidarbha is enduring a heat wave that has raised the temperature to a sweltering 44 degrees in Akola – it brings another annoyance: mosquitoes. Gawande complains of sleepless nights because of them. “Since I have come here, two farmers have been admitted to the hospital for malaria,” he says.
Besides causing discomfort, waiting at the APMC costs him money. He pays Rs 500 every day as rent for the tractor.
In between, he’s made five trips home as he misses his daughter. He also has to take care of his rabi crop of wheat, but the visits are not frequent enough. The fields haven’t been watered and the crop may suffer.
Gawande is one of over 800 farmers who have been living – cooking, eating, sleeping and, mostly, waiting – at the Akola APMC for many days. They are waiting to sell tur dal (pigeon pea), which they have just harvested, to the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED), whose office lies right next to the APMC yard.
These farmers have received tokens, an assurance that NAFED will purchase their produce; it’s just that they don’t know when. “I got the token 30 days ago. Everyday, I check if my turn has come,” says Gawande. “Lately, they have been clearing only a few truck loads of tur everyday; the number is not fixed. So, I’m not sure when my turn will come,” he says.
By 10 a.m., the farmers gather outside the NAFED office. But on this day, like the last few days, it remains shut. Gawande and his fellow farmers will have to wait some more.
This was not how Gawande had planned things to go.
Crop failure had caused an acute shortage of tur in the country, which pushed its prices up in 2015-16. For farmers, it was a windfall as they earned Rs 10,000-Rs 14,000 per quintal of tur in the open market.
In June 2016, after four years of poor harvests, Gawande was sinking in loans. He could have repaid some of his loans if only he had sown more tur the previous year, he thought.
And then he saw the news on TV – Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting Mozambique and signing deals to buy tur at high prices. The government was also aggressively encouraging Indian farmers to cultivate more pulses.
His hopes were raised.
He sowed tur in all of his four acres for the kharif season (in July). He took loans to buy seeds, fertiliser and pesticide, and to pay for labour. All together, he spent over Rs 28,000 to cultivate tur.
Much to Gawande’s relief, 2016 was a good monsoon year. In February 2017, he harvested 15 quintals of tur. He was pleased. Going by last year’s prices, he expected to make over Rs 1.5 lakh.
But as this year’s tur started to arrive in the market, prices crashed. Like Gawande, most farmers in Vidarbha and across India had harvested a bumper tur crop. The crop was not able to command even half of last year’s price. Tur prices in the open market fell to Rs 3,500- Rs 5,000 per quintal from Rs 10,000- 14,000 per quintal last year. As the Financial Express reported in April, this was an all time low price in major pulses markets in Maharashtra.
Gawande is miffed with “Modiji”.
“Modiji said we should eat swadesi (homegrown) tur. The government asked us to grow more tur and we did,” he says.
“Now, I’m getting the worst price in ten years. The government trapped us,” he adds.
Like Gawande, many farmers are blaming the government for the price crash, even as PM Modi has repeatedly taken credit for this huge increase in production. In the February episode of Mann ki Baat, his monthly broadcast to the nation, he said, “My farmer brothers and sisters deserve special gratitude for the way they whole-heartedly accepted my request, my prayer and put in their hard labour to get a record production of pulses.”
In April, at a farmers’ rally in Surat, the PM said: “I had appealed to our farmers to spare some land for pulses cultivation…. Today, we have the result with bumper pulses crop.”
In June 2016, when farmers were preparing to sow, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by the prime minister, increased the minimum support price (MSP) of tur, and also announced a bonus for the 2016-17 kharif season. The committee said the bonus was to give a “strong price signal to farmers to increase acreage and invest for increase in productivity” as there was an “increasing gap between the demand and domestic supply of pulses and oilseeds and reliance on import is increasing.”
Union minister Venkaiah Naidu confirmed that 60% of the total allocation of Rs 1,700 crore for the National Food Security Mission was earmarked for pulses. Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh tweeted frequently about the government’s pulse promotion programme.
— Radha Mohan Singh (@RadhamohanBJP) February 17, 2017
— Radha Mohan Singh (@RadhamohanBJP) February 23, 2017
The government’s pulses promotion programme was a massive success. Production of tur across India reached a 14-year high, with 80% more production than last year.
In Maharashtra, tur is typically intercropped with soybean – a row of tur for every six rows of soybean. But, in 2016, many farmers sowed a row of tur for every three rows of soybean. Some farmers, who earlier grew tur on only a part of their land, dedicated their entire field to tur. Many farmers in Vidarbha dropped their traditional crop of cotton to cultivate tur.
As a result, Maharashtra saw about 25% increase in area under tur cultivation as compared to the previous year. Tur production in the state increased from 4.44 lakh tonnes the previous year to 20.35 lakh tonne in 2016-17.
Producing almost half of India’s total tur this year left Maharashtra vulnerable to the price crash.
“We cultivated more tur because the government asked us to. The prices were good and they said they would buy all our produce,” says 71-year-old Samadhan Ingle from Manaki village in Akola.
“Now look at what has become of us. The prices have fallen and the government procurement is slow. The produce is rotting or being stolen. We have suffered huge losses,” he adds.
Traders at the Akola APMC have offered to buy Gawande’s produce for Rs 3,500-Rs 4,200 per quintal but he wants to sell it to NAFED, which pays the MSP of Rs 5,050.
After wholesale prices of pulses fell below the MSP, the union government launched a pulses procurement programme. To firm up prices and also to create a stock of pulses, the government, for the first time, directed NAFED, the Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC) and the Food Corporation of India (FCI), to procure pulses at the MSP. SFAC later roped in the MahaFPC – the apex body of Farmers Producers Company (FPC) in Maharashtra – to procure pulses.
However, to make the additional Rs 1,000-1,500 per quintal, Gawande must bear with the slow procurement. Post procurement, he would need to wait another 15-20 days for the payment to come through.
Many farmers cannot wait – the summer wedding season and the sowing season for kharif are upcoming. So they end up selling to the open market at lower prices. Though the government has a mortgage scheme to prevent distress selling, it works only if prices rise substantially in the near future, which appears unlikely.
NAFED’s explanations behind the delay in procurement have been varied: oversupply, festivals and shortage of packaging material. Farmers say the NAFED office at Akola remained shut for ten days in March citing shortage of gunny sacks. “Many of us offered to buy sacks from the market and pack our tur, but they are not allowing that. I do not see why that would be a problem,” says Panjabrao Karale, a 56-year-old farmer from Rajanda village.
An official from NAFED, on the condition of anonymity, said: “We have run out of storage space due to oversupply. But we can’t refuse to buy from farmers till the procurement deadline announced by the government is over. So we are procuring as and when we can.”
However, due to pressure from farmers, the government has extended the procurement deadline multiple times – from March 15 to April 15, and then, to April 22.
By the second week of May, government agencies had purchased only one-fifth of over 20 lakh tonnes of tur produced in Maharashtra this year. With massive loads of tur still waiting to be sold, the central government has now decided to purchase an additional one lakh tonne from Maharashtra till May 31. Moreover, to clear the stock, NAFED is selling pulses to state governments, defence and paramilitary forces.
“The worst case scenario for farmers is weak procurement and stock limits which force farmers to sell most of their output at market prices that are well below MSP,” wrote Modi’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, in a report on incentivising pulse production in September 2016.
He recommends “government procurement on war footing” as prices decline.
The crash of tur prices was due to oversupply but the bumper crop was just one of the reasons. Import of huge quantities of tur at zero import duty, continuation of the 2006 ban on export of pulses and restrictions on stocking by private agencies have added to supply in the domestic market.
To stabilise prices, in September 2016, the government decided to create a buffer stock of 20 lakh tonnes of pulses through imports and domestic procurement.
Even after the agriculture ministry’s advance estimates in September 2016 and February 2017 suggested record domestic our production – 72% higher than the previous year, and 17% higher than the government’s target for this year – the government has continued to import tur. This year alone, the government has imported 27.86 lakh tonnes of tur till March.
Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha, while raising the issue in the house, pointed out that the government was importing tur at Rs 10,114 per quintal, while the MSP was Rs 5,050. “Instead of importing tur from outside, the government should come forward to purchase from our own farmers at the same rate or at least at the rate of Rs 7,000 per quintal,” he said.
Farmers have also raised this issue. “Why did the government import so much tur while we were readying to harvest a bumper crop? Shouldn’t we import only when we don’t grow enough,” asks Sandeep Warkhade, a farmer from Dayanda village in Akola district.
Another farmer, Sahibrao Ramakrishna More of Badlapur village, who sold tur in the open market because of an urgent need of cash, wonders: “Modiji went to other countries and bought tur when there was a shortage. Why can’t he now go and sell tur to other countries when we have a huge surplus?”
In fact, reopening of export has been suggested by experts, including the PM’s chief economic adviser. In September 2016, he recommended an immediate “elimination of export ban on pulses and stock limits”. He emphasised it was urgently required for the prices to stabilise.
“If farmers can get a better price by exporting, why are they not permitted do so, especially when the system cannot even guarantee them MSP and imports are open? Let it be very clear that any bans or restrictions on exports are simply an implicit tax on the peasantry and an anti-farmer policy” argues Ashok Gulati, the Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, in a column in the Indian Express.
Though the government has given no indication of lifting the decade-old ban on export of pulses, it reinstated a 10% import duty on tur on March 28. However, this decision might have come a little too late for farmers, who can’t wait for a possible price rise due to reduced import. This move is likely to benefit traders rather than farmers.
In Vidarbha region, where tur has replaced cotton as a major crop in many villages, and back-to-back droughts have indebted many farmers, this year’s tur was expected to bring in much needed relief.
The data compiled by the Maharashtra government showed that 852 farmers committed suicide this year till April – 213 in April, 235 in March and 202 each in February and January. About half (409) of the suicides this year have occurred in Vidarbha region alone.
The data compiled by the Relief and Rehabilitation Department showed that 639 farmers in Maharashtra committed suicide this year till March 31 – 235 in March and 202 each in February and January.
In Vidarbha alone, 203 farmers committed suicide – 174 in Amaravati division and 29 in Nagpur division – in January and February.
“Both major crops – tur and soybean – have crushed Vidarbha farmers this year. With the current prices, we can’t even pay the small crop loans (Rs 10,000-12,000) from banks; forget the loans from moneylenders,” says Sadanand Asolkar, whose family collectively owns 30 acres of land at Yavalkhed in Akola district.
“Everybody knows what a distressed farmer will do, he will commit suicide,” he adds.
In Wadi-Adampur village, 70 km away from Akola, 30-year-old Usha Pardhi is sitting in the small verandah of her single-room brick house.
A cradle made with old cotton sheets hangs inside the room. Her six-month-old son, Shivam, is playing in her lap.
The left side of the verandah doubles up as the living area, with a khaat for guests. A small section on the right serves as the kitchen, where a chulha sits in the corner and some aluminium vessels lie on the floor. A utensil rack hangs on the wall next to it, with just a couple of steel plates and a tea cup.
Her four-year-old daughter Sadhana is playing with a plastic straw and some twigs. Her other daughter Anjali, eight, is trying to get her attention by tapping on a plate with her fingers.
Anjali asks her, “Aai, why did God call Baba to him?”
Usha gives her a dispirited look.
Her husband, Shekhar Pardhi, committed suicide on February 21. He was 35.
Bad harvests from his one acre of land over the last four years had left Pardhi in huge debts. He owed money to relatives, the grocery shop, pharmacy and moneylenders in the village. Matters had reached a point where nobody would lend him money.
Like many other farmers in Vidarbha last year, he thought tur held promise for a way out. After days of pleading and promising moneylenders that he would repay immediately after selling tur, he managed to get some loans for sowing.
For a small holding, he reaped a decent harvest – two quintals of tur. He expected a good income – Rs 20,000-Rs 24,000.
Instead, he had to settle for a total of Rs 8,000, at the price of Rs 4,000 per quintal. He could not hold out for the NAFED price as he needed cash immediately to pay off his debts. Even without saving anything for his family to eat, he could repay just one moneylender. He started avoiding the others.
Morning and evening, the moneylenders came to his house. They would shout at him and he would plead for an extension.
On February 21, a moneylender came to his house. Standing in the courtyard in front of his house, he shouted: “You had borrowed promising to pay after selling soybean; you did not. Then, you promised to pay after selling tur. Now, you have sold tur. No more excuses. You must pay.”
Pardhi’s family and neighbours were listening.
Pardhi stayed indoors the entire day and stepped out only in the evening. He told Usha he was going to the village temple for bhajan and would return late.
Early next morning, Pardhi’s body was found hanging from a tree in the fields. “He hung himself with his shirt,” says Usha.
“That was his only shirt and it was all torn,” she adds.
It had been 12 days since he had sold the tur.
“I knew he had loans. But I had no idea how much. He never mentioned it to me. I knew he was under stress; I just didn’t realise it was so bad he could kill himself,” she adds.
Pardhi’s family is not eligible for the compensation the government pays in case of a farmer suicide, as the land he tilled was not yet in his name. Though Pardhi had got his share of one acre when the family property was divided, he did not have the money to run around government offices, pay fees and bribes to have the land transferred in his name.
Shivam pokes at Usha’s face. She looks at him and says: “Shekhar had big dreams for Shivam. He often said ‘Shivam won’t work in the fields. We will make him healthy and strong and send him to the military. He will protect our country.’”
“Now, I can’t even afford milk for him. How can I dream of sending him to the military”, she asks, as if talking to herself.