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Hardoi/Rae Bareli: Large swathes of green and yellow mustard crop can take any city traveller aback in central Uttar Pradesh.
At this time of the year, the crop is nearly ready for harvest. In the warm spring sun, it is almost iridescent.
“Another month to go, and the crop will be ready,” says Ramesh Kumar, who is working in his field with his wife.
A sharecropper belonging to the Dalit Pasi community of Bithan village in Rae Bareli, Ramesh says that a lot of labour goes into cultivating mustard. “I hope the prices don’t drop at the time of selling,” he adds.
Then, Ramesh begins to narrate a story, gradually uncovering the enigma behind a sudden surge of mustard fields in the state.
Traditionally, most farmers in the central regions of Uttar Pradesh depended on an annual cycle of paddy and wheat farming.
Although wheat is still the most popular, mustard has gently been overtaking it over the last five years. One of the primary reasons for such a drastic change in the agriculture pattern, Ramesh and his ilk say, is the menacing stray cattle problem, for which a large chunk of farmers hold the Adityanath-led state government responsible.
“Mustard crop is bitter. Hungry cattle – which have wreaked havoc in our lives – prefer wheat to mustard,” Ramesh tells The Wire.
It is not that farmers do not need to adopt measures to protect mustard plants. “But once the mustard plant grows to a certain height, cattle don’t graze on them. At best, we have to protect our mustard fields for a little over a month until it acquires its bitterness,” he explains.
Wheat, on the other hand, has to be protected until it is harvested. “A lot of time and energy is wasted on wheat,” Ramesh says.
Protecting farmland has become integral to villages of Uttar Pradesh, so much so that most farmers have constructed permanent sheds in their fields to guard the standing crop in the night.
“We can’t even remember a time when we didn’t have to protect our farms from stray cattle,” Ramesh says.
“Isn’t mustard getting costlier?” this reporter asks, referring to the increasing market price of mustard oil.
“Only since last year. Now, mustard is selling for anywhere between Rs 35-40 per kilogram. But we started growing it when we used to get only Rs 15-20. We thought something is better than nothing,” he replies.
But wheat is more profitable, even though the input cost of both crops are more or less the same, he says.
“See, from one bigha (0.6 acre), we get around 4-5 quintals of mustard seeds, while wheat gives us around 12-15 quintals off the same piece of land. The price of mustard can fluctuate but wheat gives an assured income,” he says.
He explains that since the government decides a minimum support price for wheat, farmers feel more secure with growing wheat. “MSP for wheat is a little over Rs 2,000. But most farmers here sell it to businessmen as we find the mandi system too complicated and inaccessible. The intermediaries give us around Rs 1,600 per quintal in cash immediately after we hand over the crop,” he adds.
Wheat is ideal as it also doubles up as farmers’ food, ensuring cultivators who grow it do not go hungry. “Sarson chaba kar pet thodi na bharega?” he asks.
‘Would chewing mustard seeds fill our stomachs?’
“Wheat is still our first preference but feral cattle has left us with no option,” he says.
He chips in immediately afterwards, “Mustard has one more advantage. Wheat requires watering at least three times, while a single spray of water is enough for mustard. That saves us a lot of fuel cost. Diesel has become so expensive now.”
The stray cattle menace has emerged as the biggest electoral concern in the farming community. The problem has emerged as a big worry for the incumbent BJP, forcing even the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address it in his recent speech at Hardoi. He said that once elected to power, the BJP government will immediately draft a new policy to contain the problem.
However, most farmers will tell you that the problem is one of BJP’s own making.
The chief minister’s decision to ban slaughterhouses has escalated the problem of stray cattle, they feel. Pressed with increasing cost of agriculture and declining income over the years, poor farmers are forced to let their cattle loose.
Earlier, they would sell non-productive cows and buffaloes in regional cattle markets. However, stringent laws introduced against cattle smuggling and a ban on cow slaughter have prevented cattle trade in the state from operating smoothly.
Cattle traders fear reprisal from Hindutva vigilante groups. Although the state government took up efforts to increase the number of shelters or gaushalas for stray cattle, they are far too few for the massive scale of the problem.
Gaushalas in Tirwa of Kannauj, in Sandila and Balamau of Hardoi, in Bithan of Rae Bareli, which The Wire visited had cattle much beyond their capacity.
“We have a capacity of lodging only 200 cows. But currently we have over 280. The funds are fixed. We have to make do with whatever we have,” a gaushala worker in Sandila tells The Wire.
Gaushalas are run either by village pradhans or municipal bodies. Farmers allege that although the state government has allocated Rs 900 per cow or a buffalo to a gaushala, those funds are being siphoned off by officials or contractors or political representatives.
“Please park yourself at our village gaushala after the sun sets for a day. You will see how gaushala caretakers open up its gates everyday to let the cattle loose,” Ramesh says.
The mustard fields are breathtaking. But they hide the constant struggle that cultivators go through in central Uttar Pradesh.
Across villages in the region, farmers narrate various versions of Ramesh ‘man versus animal’ story.
“My uncle was attacked by a bull. In every village you go to, you will find people who got injured while chasing feral cattle away from their farm land. Many have died because of such attacks,” Ramesh says.
Yet, most will tell you that they obviously do not want cattle to die of hunger.
“I don’t know what is the solution to this problem. It is a survival fight not only for humans but also for orphaned cows and buffaloes,” Ramesh says with a sigh.