NEW DELHI: Agrarian irony cries out in Punjab, the food bowl of the country, with farmers’ indebtedness only growing in recent years.
The agrarian irony is marked by overproduction in the face of inadequate price, with lopsided institutional credit, leaving farmers at the mercy of money-lenders.
Faced with regular droughts in vast swathes of the country in the face of irrigation network catering only to 52 per cent of cultivable land, farmers have seen their income eroding amidst rising input costs.
There is, indeed, a tall order for the new government to radically reform agriculture, source of livelihoods for half the population of the country. The new government could begin by biting the bullet, possibly by bringing agriculture under the Concurrent List of Constitution.
Malwa region of Punjab has, incidentally, hundreds of farm widows.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report in 2016 found that the highest rise in India in cases of farmer suicides at 118% was in Punjab.
“The challenge in agriculture is problem of plenty – more production, less price. Price, pricing, procurement and logistic are areas of focus for the government to steer agriculture out of distress. Additionally, scarcity of resources in the face of 70 per cent of over Rs 12 lakh crore of institutional credit flowing into just eight states, leaving farmers in eastern, central and southern states at the mercy of non-institutional creditors, mostly money-lenders,” said J P Mishra, former Advisor (Agriculture) Niti Aayog.
Vidarbha-Yavatmal regions of Maharashtra and Mandsaur-Indore arc of Madhya Pradesh exemplify the ills of agriculture. In the face of farmers’ suicides, the region has seen movements to put pressure on state and Central government for remedies.
Kalamb taluka of Maharashtra’s Osmanabad had over 110 farmer suicides over the past five years. Due to drought, the area under crop has come down to almost half of over 73,000 hectares.
Around 70% of those who can’t afford to continue farming are small and marginal farmers. According to a recent government survey, of the 110 families whose heads committed suicides, 92 were in need of credit, 77 needed wells and 68 wanted skill development.
Mishra argued that the government must on priority revive and strengthen district cooperatives to build on institutional credit network in unbanked areas of the country.
“In the absence of institutional credit networks, farmers are at mercy of money lenders who function as leeches sucking out blood,” Mishra stated.
In Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh which saw huge farmers’ protests and killing of five in police firing while demanding a right price for their agricultural produce and farm loan waiver on June 6, 2017, around 70% of the state population is dependent directly or indirectly on agriculture.
One of the main demands, has already been cleared by the new Congress government, which waived off crop loans of Rs 2 lakh each of 21 lakh farmers, but droughts, high input costs and climate change besides late payments for produce sold still perpetuates farm distress.
A middle-aged farmer from Hatod village of Indore district said, “Onion is sold at Rs 8 per kg, the price fixed by the government, while good quality garlic fetches up to Rs 8,000 per quintal. While payment up to Rs 10,000 is made in cash by traders, higher payments get stuck in RTGS formalities”.
Jhanda Singh, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader said 80% farmers have land below five acres and all of them have a huge debt to repay.
Labh Singh, 73, cultivates 6.5 acres land in Ditupur Jata village near Nabha in Patiala district and has seven mouths to feed and finds it hard to make ends meet with debts totaling Rs 7.5 lakh.
He sold 2.5 acres of his 9-acre land to clear loans. His wheat and paddy crops earned Rs 3.45 lakh but the input cost was over Rs 2.5 lakh.
Every six month’s Labh Singh has to pay instalments for two loans for which the interest alone is Rs 56,000.
With cross-section of farmers spoken by this newspaper in Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra ruing price crash, the unfinished business of the Narendra Modi led NDA dispensation come to fore – to free farmers from clutches of Mandis (Agriculture Produces Marketing Cooperatives amendment), compensating against market price crash through paying the differences done in MP with “Bhavantar”, adopting model land leasing to help small and marginal farmers to pool land to gain remunerative prices and logistics with investment in cold chains to stagger flow of produce in the market.
(With Inputs from Harpreet Bajwa in Punjab and Anuraag Singh in Indore)