Mega projects cheat farm­ers of their land

Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur) - - Front Page - Ke­taki Ghoge letters@hindustantimes.com

IN DIS­TRESS Al­ready caught in the spi­ral of high in­put costs and low re­turns, farm­ers in the fer­tile Nasik belt now risk los­ing their land to in­fra­struc­ture projects

Shantaram Wagh­chowre’s wor­ries are mul­ti­ply­ing. Al­ready hit by plung­ing prices for the crops he grows in his five-acre fam­ily farm in Maharashtra’s Pim­pal­gaon Dukre vil­lage of Nasik district, he is now star­ing at a loss of liveli­hood.

The state govern­ment is set to ac­quire 50,000 acres of land for the ~46,000-crore Mum­bai-Nag­pur su­per communication high­way to bring de­vel­op­ment to the back­ward re­gions of Vi­darbha and Marath­wada, but Wagh­chowre fears it will spell doom for him and his fam­ily.

The pro­posed eight-lane high­way would eat up four acres of his land hold­ing. “We sur­vive and get by be­cause of our land. You take this away from us and we are left with noth­ing. Not even hope,” rues Wagh­chowre.

Shar­ing his ap­pre­hen­sion are 3,700 farm­ers in Nasik alone who have regis­tered their ob­jec­tions af­ter re­ceiv­ing the govern­ment no­ti­fi­ca­tion for ac­qui­si­tion of their land. In­ci­den­tally, 84% of the land ear­marked for the high­way project is agri­cul­tural.

Al­ready caught in the spi­ral of high in­put costs and di­min­ish­ing re­turns, the high­way project is another rea­son for disquiet among lo­cal farm­ers. The re­cent farm­ers’ protests in north Maharashtra were trig­gered by the govern­ment’s land ac­qui­si­tion poli­cies among oth­ers.

“Not just this ex­press­way, but all bigticket projects cheat farm­ers,” said Ulka Ma­ha­jan, an anti-land ac­qui­si­tion ac­tivist who had led the protests against the Ma­hamum­bai Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone in Raigad. Many farm­ers agree that road projects such as the Mum­bai-Nasik high­way will es­sen­tially leave them by the way­side.

Their list of griev­ances against the govern­ment is long. Top among them is the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s al­leged lack of trans­parency in land ac­qui­si­tion. Farm­ers say no so­cial im­pact as­sess­ment was done and the is­sue of com­pen­sa­tion to land­less labour­ers was ig­nored. They are also not im­pressed with the price — four times the cur­rent mar­ket rate — that the govern­ment is of­fer­ing as per the new Land Ac­qui­si­tion law, se­lec­tively used for the project. “Our land is ir­ri­gated and we can grow crops the whole year round. I don’t think you can put a price on that in Maharashtra,” said Dhanaji Wagh­chowre, Shantaram’s brother.

Farm­ing has mostly ceased to be prof­itable, push­ing more and more farm­ers into a deadly debt trap. Ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates, 1,129 farm­ers com­mit­ted sui­cide be­tween Jan­uary and May this year. Ma­jor­ity of these sui­cides are from Vi­darbha and Marath­wada, where farm­ers prac­tice dry­land farm­ing. And many of those who de­pend on agri­cul­ture for their liveli­hoods don’t want to give up their lands be­cause there’s no vi­able al­ter­na­tive. The three Wagh­chowre broth­ers are among them.

As far as Shantaram re­mem­bers, the last time he made a killing was in Septem­ber 2013. Then, he had got ~5,000 for a quin­tal of onions. Be­long­ing to the vegetable belt of Nasik, Shantaram made a cool ~2.5 lakh by sell­ing his 50 quin­tals onions to the Agri­cul­ture Pro­duce Mar­ket­ing Com­mit­tee (APMC). Prices have gone down­hill since, and so has his fi­nan­cial well-be­ing. “2013 was the best thing to have hap­pened…This year the price is down to ~350 a quin­tal. I won’t even re­cover my in­put costs,” he said.

With onions bring­ing him tears, he has scaled down his am­bi­tions. “A farmer lives on hope. I won’t plant onions across my five acres but half an acre is my gam­ble. Some­thing might pay off,’’ he said. Nearly 40 quin­tals of un­sold onions lie cov­ered un­der a tar­pau­lin out­side his mud and thatched house ad­ja­cent to his field.

Onions, how­ever, are just one of Shantaram’s many prob­lems. Novem­ber’s de­mon­eti­sa­tion hit the fam­ily hard and cur­tailed their ac­cess to cash. Then ready-to-har­vest to­ma­toes were lost in a hail­storm in May, re­sult­ing in a loss of ~40,000. The fam­ily there­after also lost one of its bul­locks and the till­ing of land in the new sow­ing sea­son suf­fered a setback.

The Wagh­chowres are the typ­i­cal small Maharashtra farmer with three broth­ers and their fam­i­lies liv­ing off the five-acre field. But what sep­a­rates them from the rest is their ir­ri­gated land, cour­tesy a well and a pipe­line that brings wa­ter from the Kadwa river nearby.

Not ev­ery Ma­ha­rash­trian farmer is as lucky, with only 18% of land tilled in the state be­ing ir­ri­gated.

Shantaram and his two broth­ers feel that though life isn’t ex­actly good, it could have been much worse with­out the land. Be­sides onions, they grow to­ma­toes, brin­jals and sug­ar­cane. Their field is nor­mally lush green even at the height of sum­mer. But that does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into a wind­fall as there are too many im­pon­der­ables plagu­ing the farm sec­tor, in­clud­ing un­sea­sonal rains, pest at­tacks and price fluc­tu­a­tions.

Shrink­ing prof­its and height­ened un­pre­dictabil­ity have put the fam­ily in a quandary.

The money the broth­ers make is just enough to feed the fam­ily of 10, but in­ad­e­quate to ser­vice their debts. A far big­ger chal­lenge at the mo­ment for them is to get Dhanaji’s daugh­ter Su­varna into a col­lege. The girl has just passed Class 12, the first to do so in the fam­ily, but is fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

“Where will a farmer get ~70,000 by the end of the year for col­lege ex­penses?” asked her mother Su­nita. De­spite boun­ti­ful pro­duc­tion, hope is in short sup­ply among farm­ers of Maharashtra. Ir­ri­gated by a well and a di­rect pipe­line from the river nearby

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