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
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