The trouble with a bumper harvest

2017 has been a year of bountiful cash crops. Yet farmers have been forced to agitate for loan waivers

Published: 15th June 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th June 2017 11:28 PM   |  A+A-

It’s not for nothing that the Indian folkworld is filled with songs on the rain in just about every spoken language. Even in the age of social media, the folksy has only acquired newer modes of transmission: Family message groups were flooded with news of the first rain that hit the Kerala coast. But that’s for those who have the leisure of indulging in drawing-room discourse. For the city-bred, who enjoy the fruits of somebody else’s toil, the monsoon rains evoke song, a romantic mood, nostalgia, or at worst it’s a seasonal irritant that causes traffic snarls.

For rural India, which still depends on heavenly benevolence to irrigate its fields on time (52 per cent of our farmlands are rain-fed), how exactly luck rains down—and in what proportion—makes for a deadly gamble. Dangling precariously between bipolar cycles of drought-and-flood and the occasional bounty, the Indian farmer makes more news by consuming pesticide in distress than for success. The worst part is, nothing really guarantees security for the investment the farmers make to raise a crop—whether it’s a bounty or a failed produce.

Take for example the arhar (tur) farmer in Maharashtra. After two dispiriting years of back-to-back drought, they had a bumper crop of pulses—a 29 per cent rise, from 17.15 million tonnes in 2014-15 to 22.14 million tonnes in 2016-17. Arhar alone saw a 50 per cent increase in produce. Ironically, for you wouldn’t guess from the headlines, 2017 is the year of bountiful cash crops—a 4.1 per cent growth overall in the agro-sector.

There’s a glut of pulses in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Gujarat, plentiful onion in Maharashtra and Gujarat, a flood of tomato in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and bumper soya beans in Madhya Pradesh. Not to mention the legal opium sown in what has become a cordoned-off protest zone—Mandsaur, Ratlam, Neemuch up to Indore of MP. The crisis came in an unexpected form—demonetisation. There simply wasn’t enough liquidity in the mandis for the farmers to sell their bounty at a remunerative price.

The delayed payment cycle in the government procurement process, of three months or more, has forced farmers to offload quintals of arhar at throwaway prices—`3,400 to `4,000 per quintal, as against the official MSP of `5,050 per quintal, which too is way below what the Committee of Pulses had recommended—`6,000 to `7,000 per quintal. The Centre could also not go back on its prior commitment to pick up produce from the African markets of Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania (where pulses, and not any other cash crop, are sown specifically for India). Though the scale of import was not huge, it added to the heartache.

And what had resulted in the bumper crop? The hiked MSP of last fiscal encouraged farmers to sow pulses again, in the hope of a repeat gain. And now they are dumping it on the roads in rage. And a central government bent on keeping food inflation under check thought it fit not to increase the MSP, and in fact decreased it substantially across crops, despite promises of a 50 per cent raise made during recent elections. This pushed small and marginal farmers into another cycle of debt—suicide being more often than not the result of a visit to the local sahukar (moneylender)—and the big farmers, who have seen better days, into agitation. It’s not just fruits and vegetables—onion, tomato, potato—even the milk producers of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra are badly hit by the cash crunch.

Several farmer bodies had already been holding a series of meetings—in Wardha, Jaipur, Shimla and Chandigarh—to force the government to implement the Swaminathan Committee report, left unattended by the previous regime. It was at this time that the prime minister made the poll promise in Uttar Pradesh—a loan waiver of `36,589 crore, covering 39 per cent of the state’s distressed farmers. This naturally had a cascading effect. Sudhir Panwar, a prominent farm economics expert, says an electoral promise from the PM implies a national policy footprint, and everyone expected the logic to be extended to other states as well.

Soon, demands from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu started cropping up, with farmers taking to innovative agitational techniques, even violence. In Madhya Pradesh, it has become a political cocktail, with the Congress, a fledging AAP and even the Swaraj Abhiyan of Yogendra Yadav wading into it, turning it into Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s biggest nightmare in a decade, with five young Patidar farmhands killed in police firing.

But will a loan waiver help? It would douse the present crisis. But what the next drought or glut could bring about even the farmer does not know. How can we say we won’t need another loan waiver two years down the line? And can cash-strapped state governments roll out waiver packages in the absence of any support from the Centre? As it is, the shrinking per capita agricultural land use, down to nearly 30 per cent from 1952, is increasingly taking farming out of the list of viable professions—we anyway have the smallest per capita landholdings  in the entire world. Add to this the heart-wrenching indebtedness—about 53 to 57 per cent farmers across states are reeling under a debt burden. For long-term solutions, we need not only assured price mechanisms, but also investment in modern irrigation and soil development.

After the immediate distress is eased, we need to move away from the cycle of loan waivers, which have the air of freebies, much like the pre-election colour TVs, laptops and mixers doled out by Tamil Nadu politicians. But with agitating farmers saying the political party that gives them the best waiver option will get their vote in 2019, there’s no immediate end in sight.

Santwana Bhattacharya

Political Editor, The New Indian Express

Email: santwana@newindianexpress.com

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