THE SEEDS OF DIS­CON­TENT

Ma­ha­rash­tra’s farm­ers come a crop­per de­spite a bumper har­vest. Low prices for their pro­duce leave them with empty pock­ets. Mean­while, the loan waiver calls get louder

India Today - - MAHARASHTRA AGRICULTURE - By Ki­ran D. Tare

Gunny bags full of onions are piled up ev­ery­where at the agri­cul­ture pro­duce mar­ket com­mit­tee (APMC) godown at Rahuri in the Ahmed­na­gar dis­trict of Ma­ha­rash­tra. It’s a ‘bumper’ crop this year, say the proud farm­ers in a tone which be­lies their help­less­ness over the low prices for their pro­duce. Last year, the farm­ers had sold onions at an av­er­age of Rs 18 per kg. This year it’s down to Rs 5 per kg (plus Re 1 per kg as state sub­sidy for onions). Ra­jen­dra Rokade, from Parner, trans­ported his 2,000 kgs to Rahuri 68 km away just be­cause he got 50 paise more per kg here than at the other APMCs (Rs 6.50 per kg). He got an ex­tra Rs 1,000 for the ef­fort. “I can pur­chase gro­cery for my fam­ily when I get 50 paise more,” Rokade shrugs. “It’s be­com­ing dif­fi­cult to man­age ex­penses.”

Rokade rep­re­sents a class of farm­ers caught in a quandary this year—blessed by the na­ture gods but un­done by the gov­ern­ment sys­tem. The farm­ing sec­tor in Ma­ha­rash­tra reg­is­tered a growth of 12.5 per cent—the high­est in the past five years. There has been a phe­nom­e­nal in­crease in the pro­duc­tion of tra­di­tional crops such as tur, soy­abean, onion and jowar, thanks to the 110 per cent rain­fall last year and the suit­able cli­mate hence. Com­pared to the five mil­lion quin­tals of tur pro­duced last year, this time the num­ber is up to 11.7 mil­lion quin­tals. How­ever, the dras­tic fall in prices has left the farm­ers with empty pock­ets again. Tur is be­ing sold at Rs 3,700 per quin­tal to pri­vate traders as the gov­ern­ment cen­tres, where it is pur­chased at a rate of Rs 5,050 per quin­tal, take at least a week to complete pro­cure­ment.

The Op­po­si­tion is mount­ing pres­sure on the Deven­dra Fad­navis-led gov­ern­ment to an­nounce a loan waiver to the farm­ers. But even the farm­ers think that loan waivers are a tem­po­rary re­lief, not a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion. Vi­las Sa­gare, who has come to Rahuri to sell his onion crop, equates the waiver with beg­ging. He says the gov­ern­ment should in­stead an­nounce a min­i­mum sup­port price for each crop. “We want a good mar­ket price, not free­bies,” says Sa­gare, who has a loan of Rs 1.25 lakh from the dis­trict co­op­er­a­tive bank. “If we earn even 20 per cent profit, we will not need loans from any bank,” he says.

The mood is worse in ar­eas where rain­fall was in­ad­e­quate. At Kau­thadi, a vil­lage

near Bara­mati in Pune, Haushi­ram Ma­tole points to his dried pome­gran­ate crop. He in­vested Rs 7.5 lakh on his five-acre farm—and has so far earned about Rs 80,000. “If the gov­ern­ment waives the loan, I will not re­ject it like I did last time,” says Ma­tole. “But loan waivers alone will not help. What we need is cash to in­vest fur­ther in the farms. And that we can earn only through bet­ter prices for our pro­duce. No hard-work­ing farmer will go beg­ging to the gov­ern­ment for his loan to be waived.” In­ter­est­ingly, Ma­tole had re­paid a loan of Rs 9 lakh in 2008 even af­ter the gov­ern­ment’s waiver that year. “I did it be­cause the mar­ket was good at the time,” he says.

Samadhan Mir­gal from nearby Jite­gaon, how­ever, is in favour of the waiver. He has a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh which he took to in­stal a drip ir­ri­ga­tion line on his five-acre farm. He could sow only jowar be­cause of the in­ad­e­quate rain­fall. The prices are down from Rs 1,800 to Rs 1,200 per quin­tal. “If I had some other cash crop, I would have said I don’t need the waiver,” Mir­gal says. “But how I am sup­posed to re­pay the loan now?”

The de­bate has steamed up of late, es­pe­cially af­ter the new Ut­tar Pradesh gov­ern­ment an­nounced a waiver to farm­ers there. While the BJP gov­ern­ment in Ma­ha­rash­tra is stick­ing to its stand of no loan waivers, the Op­po­si­tion—on the back­foot since the rout in the mu­nic­i­pal polls—has made it an is­sue to re­gain lost ground. The Congress and NCP even took out a six-day march over this. The sec­ond phase of the protest be­gan on April 15.

Fad­navis main­tains that loan waivers are no so­lu­tion. He says the state is com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing farm­ers se­cu­rity in wa­ter and elec­tric­ity so that they can in­crease crop pro­duc­tion. “We are cre­at­ing a sys­tem where the farm­ers will not feel their loan is a bur­den,” he says, adding that the gov­ern­ment’s “in­vest­ments” in the sec­tor will start bear­ing fruit in about five years. He also points out that loan waivers help the dis­trict co­op­er­a­tive banks more than the farm­ers. “We saw it last time too. Our de­ci­sion on loan waivers will be on a case-to-case ba­sis,” he says.

Fad­navis has a point. Around 90 per cent of the state’s farm­ers have ac­counts in the dis­trict co-op banks. The ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Os­man­abad dis­trict bank “mis­used” Rs 4 crore of the Rs 10 crore it got from the Cen­tre for dis­burs­ing crop in­sur­ance money. The bank put out the money to earn in­ter­est in­stead of dis­burs­ing it to farm­ers.

NCP leader Dilip Walse-Patil, though, dis­agrees with the CM. He says a loan waiver would help the banks get rid of their NPAs (non-per­form­ing as­sets) and help im­prove their fi­nan­cial con­di­tion. “Af­ter all, the dis­trict banks are meant to help the farm­ers. What’s wrong if they be­come rich?”

Fi­nance min­is­ter Sud­hir Mun­gan­ti­war, mean­while, is in favour of de­posit­ing loan amounts di­rectly into the farmer’s ac­count. “The banks are cheats, not the farm­ers,” he says.

Away from the po­lit­i­cal slugfest, the vil­lagers at Pun­tamba have taken an un­usual stand. The gram sabha has called for a farm­ers’ strike from June 1. Protest­ing the state’s ap­a­thy, they will not sell their pro­duce. The ag­i­ta­tion has now spread to four other talukas—Vai­japur, Kopar­gaon, Ra­hata and Rahuri.

Farmer leader Dhanan­jay Jad­hav says the plan is to spread the ag­i­ta­tion to other parts of the state too. He ar­gues that the farm­ers’ plight will not be heard un­til there is a short­age of milk and other es­sen­tial items in the cities. “We will call it a suc­cess if we man­age to cut sup­plies by 40 per cent,” says the BJP worker. Jad­hav be­lieves ex­cess pro­duc­tion is a curse for the farm­ers. “We get good prices only when there is a short­age. The gov­ern­ment will come to its knees when the short­age is cre­ated.” Ev­ery­one agrees that the farm­ers’ de­mand for cre­at­ing a mar­ket sys­tem where they can earn prof­its is jus­ti­fied. All eyes are on the Fad­navis gov­ern­ment on how it solves this com­pli­cated puz­zle.

Haushi­ram Mo­tale at his pome­gran­ate farm in Kau­thadi vil­lage, near Pune

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