Skip to content

4

Sone-Sangvi, Kej, Beed (Maharashtra):

The breeze that began to flow around noon on April 6 had by the evening grown into a heavy storm. Then the hails, the size of mangoes, came pelting down, with rain that lasted until the following evening. When the weather finally calmed down, 55-year-old Chandrakant Ikhe began to count his losses.

“I had no heart to see my farm after this event,” recounts Ikhe, a progressive farmer still to reconcile to his unprecedented loss in those two days. Football size water-melons lay damaged on 16 acres, mauled by the rain of hail, he remembers, countless melons, unfit for consumption, still strewn all over. “See this?” Ikhe says in frustration, lifting a big melon showing cracks and marks, “it’s all a waste.”

Ikhe’s mental anguish is quite stark: There are long pauses between his sentences; he stares desolately at his forlorn farm with rotting ‘sugar-babies’ (sugar-baby is the melon variety he grew) as far as you can see. His crop worth at least Rs 20-25 lakh went to dumps overnight. “You are seeing 350-400 ton (MT) of melons,” he says of the destroyed crop. In a fortnight, it’d have fetched him Rs 5-6000 per MT.

Some melons escaped nature’s fury, he says, but they would fetch paltry price. Ikhe will manage to earn barely Rs 1.5 lakh, or less than ten per cent of his estimated returns. That, he adds, is not even his investment costs. It was for the first time he cultivated melons on a big stretch, he says.

From his returns he planned to renovate his house, marry off his only daughter this year, and invest in a new farm technology. “Now the priority is to fix loans,” he says. The plans, alas, are on the hold.

Farming is a risky profession, but Ikhe’s just learnt it’s also a gamble. “Had it rained a week later, I may not have suffered such a big.” He’s is among a hundred melon growers who suffered big losses in recent hailstorm in this village of Kej Tehsil in Marathwada’s drought-prone Beed district, their loss accentuated by extreme weather events that are occurring at such regularity that farmers like him have no idea how to cope.

Several climate studies point to a sharp rise in extreme weather events in central India, and warn the farmers would be at the receiving end. On the one hand, Marathwada region, of which Beed is a part, is experiencing a continuation of meteorological drought leading to severe water stress; and on the other, sudden climate events like hailstorm in March-April is wrecking irreparable damages to crops.

Sone-Sangvi farmers are not atypical sustenance small or marginal farmers. Most of them grow high-end crops with cutting edge technologies. Their stakes are high, their risks higher.

A few km from Ikhe’s village near Kej town, Waseem Inamdar, 32, is broke too. He shows us around his farm – a picture of devastation. This week, the farm, in the midst of barren land, would have harvested bananas, pomegranates, Kesar mangoes and grapes that had come to harvest, clocking him profits of around Rs 50 lakh, by conservative estimates. Like Ikhe, he too can’t recover his input costs. He spent Rs 20 lakh this year – or almost 40 times the average annual investment that a dry-land cotton farmer of 2-ha land would usually spend on his cotton field in this region to earn Rs 10-20,000/acre. That was mostly on drip sets, digging a few bore-wells, and fertilisers and other inputs. Inamdar’s investment and losses like that of Sone-Sangvi farmers would make a small farmer in Marathwada mighty nervous.

“It was the third and final blow,” Inamdar says showing a banana tree that caved in with the bunch of green bananas that now look like rotting. The first bout of incessant rain came in March first week; then in March end, but the third one on April 6 and 7 came with such strong winds and hails that nothing was left to be salvaged. “Last year too I had suffered damages, but this year’s losses are irrecoverable.”

Inamdar runs a brick kiln and agriculture implements shop. From the profits he made in that business, he bought 53 acres of arid farmland near Kej and developed it into a horticulture farm by putting in big money, in five years. He first developed a banana orchard; then grapes; on a plot of five acres stand the mango plants of exportable Kesar variety, and there are pomegranates too over a six acre plot.

What happened to Ikhe or Inamdar is symbolic of wide-spread damages to crops just before the harvest. In Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, the incessant rains wrecked standing wheat and paddy; in states like Madhya Pradesh; Maharashtra; Telangana, it flattened coarse cereals, oilseeds, potatoes and fruits such as mangoes, bananas and melons. Neither farmers nor government has an idea how to prepare for such a risk. The crop insurance schemes help companies, not farmers, says Ashok Gite, a retired agriculture assistant in Beed’s Salegaon village, seven km from Ikhe’s village. “We need a good insurance policy.”

The climatic aberrations are also threatening economies of regions. Kej Taluka, which derives its name from Kejdi River, provides a green contrast to the large swathes of an arid and dreary Beed, among the driest districts in Maharashtra and part of what is called the rain-shadow zone. That’s because of a dam that came up at the confluence of Manjra and Kejdi rivers, where Sone-Sangvi village once breathed.

In the mid-80s villagers were removed to a new place. Many migrated to Mumbai, Pune or Aurangabad for work. Those like Ikhe, who stayed put, slowly transformed their new farm-lands. The once dry-land farmers switched to growing sugarcane following on the footsteps of their prosperous counterparts in western Maharashtra when sugar mills proliferated around the dam.

Empirical data shows, average annual rainfall in Beed district is less than 600 mm and the number of rainy days, much less than most other regions. In last five years the district has received less than 50 per cent of its annual average rains. Yet (and here’s the root of the problem), Beed grows millions of tonnes of water-guzzling sugarcane to feed about 20 roaring sugar-mills that formed the late Gopinath Munde and late Vilasrao Deshmukh’s political and business empires. The mills are now staring at closure as the acute water-scarcity has begun to finally hit sugarcane cultivation. Neighbouring Osmanabad and Latur districts are also facing drought this year deepening the water crisis to unprecedented levels.

“If I recollect my childhood, I only remember poverty,” remarks Babruvan Kanse, a progressive farmer in Sone-Sangvi who leads a collective of about a hundred horticulturists including Ikhe. Kanse was first in his village to actually experiment with watermelon cultivation on his farm in 2004 and motivate others to switch to this short-duration fruit from the otherwise water-guzzling sugarcane.

Lack of water, stemming from years of poor monsoon, had already prompted the peasants to look for viable alternatives to sugarcane. Kanse grew watermelons on drip – it required less water and traders came to doorsteps to buy the produce. Melon is a short duration crop. You sow the seeds on the rows of soil beds (some use mulching paper sheets to hold moisture and reduce water use) in January and reap the harvest by mid-April. The yield per acre here stands at 25 MT. At an average Rs 5-6000 per MT (Rs 5-6 a kg), the per-acre returns could be an average Rs 1.25 lakh over just three-four months.“You make a one-time capital investment on drip sets and a recurring production expenses on seeds and fertilisers and chemicals, and yet you can make good money from this crop,” Kanse explains.

So the shift was swift. Where this village had 150 hectares under sugarcane in the 2001-2002 season it now grows soybeans and pulses in kharif and water-melons in winter. They adopted new technologies – like automated and semi-automated drip sets; mulching papers to increase water efficiency; in-situ water conservation tanks; some have built expensive green poly-houses to grow high-end vegetables such as capsicum – by pledging huge investments from whatever profits they made every year.

“Weather is a new problem,” Kanse says. It barely rains during the monsoon, affecting kharif; then in February-April, sudden hailstorm events wreck the Rabi crop. Water brought him economic prosperity, Kanse says, his new problems are driven by the lack of it.

Ikhe’s 16-acre farm is in the belly of Manjra dam reservoir; sans water this time. This used to be his farm that got ceded for the dam. Some Sone-Sangvi villagers farm in the catchment when water recedes. Many have dug bore-wells in the belly and laid pipes from far away water-sources, desperate for water. If it rained, this area would be under water, Ikhe says. For many years now, it has not rained and the dam never got filled to its capacity even once this past decade. It’s a common refrain in this part.

Ikhe says he dug an open well and several bore-wells on his 16-acre farm in the catchment of the dam when the reservoir dried up. If you stretch his drip pipes end to end, he calculates, they would run 8 km long. Place a water melon every foot, he says, and you will end up counting hundreds. That’s how many have gone waste, he laments. On his five-acre near his new village, there’s nothing growing.

Until last year, he grew vegetables, potatoes, sugarcane and even water-melons there – by way of drip-irrigation. He has, like many other farmers in this belt, a semi-automated drip-set. “You set the time and quantity of water to be used; different for different crops and you can single-handedly operate the entire 50-acre stretch with this machine,” Ikhe says. “We can adopt any technology,” Ikhe says, staring at his melon farm, “how do we conquer weather?”

2

Sheela Rathod was the first to consume a bottle of weedicide in their home. An hour later, as she was being rushed to a government hospital, her husband Mohan, consumed the second bottle. In a span of two hours on December 19, 2015, the husband and wife farmers of 4 acres in their mid-40s lay alongside battling for their lives in the Yavatmal hospital, their two shaken teenage-sons by their side. On December 22, Sheela lost the battle for life. Two days later, Mohan died.

“They were conscious all the time but the poison had spread in the body and could not be removed,” says their elder son, Santosh, wearing a cap to hide his tonsured head. The after-death rituals over, he is slowly coming to terms with the hollowness that, he says, suddenly surrounds him and his brother. Their immediate tension however is ‘debt’. “What do we do of the loans our parents took?” The list of debtors is long and includes of both formal (such as bank) and informal (money lenders) sources, he says.

It’s barely a fortnight since the two died, but Deonala, a village about 40 km from Yavatmal in Vidarbha’s cotton belt, is on the edge. Two others had committed suicide in October. They had mounting loans, and like that of the Rathods, rain-fed fields with failed crops: no soybean; no cotton; no lentils. For several years now, they say, they have not seen a good agriculture season that brought good monetary returns.

Almost every family in the village of 1500 people is reeling under debts that they can’t repay. Bad crops apart, there’s no work to be found. No cash in hands to meet exigencies. No source of money in sight. Most have no idea of how to sustain the next six-eight months until the next monsoon arrives and first shoots of a new crop show up. Deonala is staring at a long summer ahead, they know.

This is but a representational example of an unfolding new crisis that government and policy makers call scarcity – of water, crop, food and cash – that’s going to test both, the people and the government. For, this might turn out to be the toughest drought in the recent history for the peasant-farmers of not just Vidarbha, but many other regions – Marathwada, Bundelkhand, north-Karnataka, Telangana, parts of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, western-central Odisha, stretches of Indo-Gangetic plains, and even Haryana. For some regions, this is an annual aberration. For others, it’s a continuation of drought.

More than 100,000 villages and several small towns are in acute crisis if one adds the tally of blocks and tehsils declared scarcity-hit by ten states after the revised or second crop assessment in November. The severity is invisible at this stage; it’s the peak of winter and on fields in some parts the winter crop is yet to be harvested. In many parts, like Marathwada, Bundelkhand, or north-Karnataka, drinking water scarcity looms as artificial storages and the rivers run dry. And farm suicides are back with a vengeance in the areas under scarcity: local language newspapers are reporting three to four suicides every day.

About 300 km from Deonala, in village Dadham of Akola district, 15-year-old school boy Vishal Khule killed himself on the morning of November 22, a few days after Diwali, in his small home, while his mother cooked chapatis. When he collapsed, his parents noticed a white liquid oozing out of his mouth, and the emptied can of “poison” lying by his side. Vishal was a 9th class student of Maharanapratap Vidyalaya in Akola town. He would commute to his school and also help his 2-acre father Vishwanath on the farm when he was back.

His elder brother Vaibhav, 18, has dropped out and works as a daily-wager wherever he finds work. In Diwali, Vishal worked with his brother, but could not earn enough to buy new clothes and some school books, his father said. The Khules belong to an Andh tribal community. The village has marginal farmers, who double up as farm labourers to make a living. But with their own fields lying empty and drought wrecking the farms of big farm owners, there’s no farm employment.

“This is the worst year and a continuation of drought for last three seasons,” Akola district collector, G Sreekanth, said. “We began preparing for the coming summer in September, last, even when monsoon was to officially end.” The administration sensed the impending crisis when rains failed completely.

Akola, like many districts in Maharashtra, received only 60 per cent of its average annual rainfall of 692 mm. “That’s around 500 mm rains, which may not sound all that bad, but we got 400 mm of that in two days, on August 4 and 5,” he said. After August 5, Akola recorded 41-day gap in rains – a very long dry spell, he said. “Every crop has failed: soybeans, cotton and tur (lentils),” he said. “People don’t have money in their hand and there’s going to be shortage of water,” he said.

It was the crop failure and lack of money that drove Bhimsagar Sonone, 39, and his wife Vrushali, 35, to attempt committing suicide on November 12, a day after Diwali, in a fit of rage, in their home in Pardi, about 80 km from Dadham in Akola district, but they miraculously survived. Like the Rathods did, they too consumed a bottle full of weedicide, meant for the crop of green gram on their two-acre farm. They were saved because they got medical aid in time.

“It was wrong of us to have done that,” they said at their Pardi home, still visibly depressed. The couple has three children, a daughter and twin-sons. A day after Diwali, the two fought with each other, just as any couple would. The reason for conflagration though, was there was no dime to buy new clothes and get their children some Diwali crackers, Vrushali said as she cried. The anger over distress spilled over. Farming in rain-fed conditions has become a never-ending drought, Bhimsagar says, nailing one of India’s biggest structural problems of poverty and growth bottlenecks. “Without water you can’t farm.”

They narrate the story that the Rathods would have, if they were alive: The farm yielded nothing; loans mounted; cash flow choked; tension and desperation built up; household expenses became difficult to be met; and no sustained work could be found. He had mortgaged all of Vrushali’s gold ornaments.

Multiple loans

Back in Deonala, Sheela’s death has added to the burden of the 19 women of her age, members of a self-help-group. For, after her death, the remaining must repay her equated weekly installments of loans they took from different non-banking financial institutions that seem to have mushroomed in this part.

“Do something, these loans are giving us blood pressure,” pleads Pramila Rathod, a neighbor and one of the senior members of the group. “I am working overtime to mop up funds to repay the debts.”

Sheela like these women juggled multiple loans that add up to between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh, to be repaid over two or three years, on a weekly basis. “Everything else stops,” Pramila says, “not the loan installment.” Together, each woman must pay Rs 4000 or more every week or so – Rs 15-16000 a month depending upon the number of loans each one of them has taken from the micro-finance companies.

When most cotton growers in rain-fed conditions don’t make even Rs 10,000 in profits from their farms, juggling multiple loans several times their frugal income is a sign of a vicious debt cycle they have landed themselves in – it’s a ground similar to the one that triggered a spike in farm suicides from 2005 to 2008.

Pramila shows us the pass-books for each of her loans: there’s Equitas; Vaya Finserv Private Ltd. (which formerly was called Outreach Financial Service India Pvt Ltd); there’s Jan-Laxmi finance and there are a couple others whose passbooks the women could not show us. The group has to split within themselves the installments of Sheela and when they are struggling to repay their own, it is a Himalayan burden.

Each of these loans comes at 20 per cent or more interest rate, much higher than the ones salaried class pays on buying consumer goods. Most of them have willingly and knowingly opted for multiple loans for the lack of options. Pramila explained it: “Our bank loans are unpaid; we have not been able to pay our bills for inputs to the dealers; private hand loans remain unpaid too, so who would lend us?”

Enter the companies, ready to dish out small cash to a group without any collateral, and the families, desperate for money, latch it up – without thinking of the consequences. The money goes into farming and when farming fails, the loans trigger a vicious repayment cycle for which you must borrow more.

Deonala’s women have much of their gold mortgaged with private lenders or jewelers; pawns they are unable to free. Cattle prices have tanked as buyers shrink and a cow-slaughter ban hits the beef business in the state. Government aid would be far too less and come mostly in band aids, the villagers rue.

Babusha, Mohan Rathod’s elder brother, has loans; so have two other brothers, Baliram and Raju. Their wives, members of self-help-groups, are indebted too – to the same micro-finance institutions.

An agent of one of these companies said on the condition of anonymity that his company has a deep penetration of micro-loan business in Vidarbha and it is expanding fast. The loans look small but they yield big returns. Since there are no collaterals, it’s the easiest route to cash, but also an equally difficult cycle to come out of. The lenders know most borrowers use it for agriculture purpose and when nationalized banks refuse to lend more to the defaulting account holders, they lend at a high risk.

A fiercely hectic repayment schedule, very high penalties on default, and a collective pressure builds up tension, says Pramila, extremely worried about her next repayment. “The day Sheela died we repaid her installment,” she says. “If her sons find some work and earn some money, it will be good for us.”

In their last moments, Mohan and Sheela kept telling their sons, that they were sorry for them; that they must look after each-other; and that they should move out of the village if they could.

In their two-room hut with a mud-littered front-yard that has a thatched shade, there now hang framed photos of Mohan and Sheela who tilled their lands laboriously and raised their sons frugally.

IMGP0690
Where do Santosh and his younger brother Sandeep go from here? “We are finding it very difficult to get work outside,” Santosh said. There are hundreds like them wanting work. Both had dropped out of school after the ninth class. “We can’t farm this land,” he said as he took us around an arid, stony, land at the foothills of a small hillock, a few km of walk from their home. It’s a ten-acre stretch, of poor soils, that Mohan tilled with his three elder brothers. This year though, in addition to his share of four acres, he had leased ten acres from a tribal farmer and invested in cotton and lentils, hoping for a better return, his sons said.

Mohan expected at least 40 quintals of cotton from 14 acres; he got three. Lentils are fetching a good price in the markets, but Santosh rued the fact that the plants have no pods. This field and stretches as long as one can see are a spectre of doom and gloom – a dry anaemic land with cotton and lentil plants that have fallen lifeless.

Recently in Durg, Raipur and Rajnandgaon (Chhattisgarh)

Jagdish Ram Nishad’s winter paddy crop is about to be harvested. On his three-acre farm, a few km from his home, green paddy strands stand along the neat rows of cabbage that are now in full bloom.

In the last ten years, the 38-year-old farmer in Kopedih village, about 30 km from Rajnandgaon town off the four-lane National Highway 6, assiduously transformed his rain-fed single crop land into an irrigated lush-green multi-crop farm. He improved his land’s productivity by ploughing back part of his profits to create assets like a bore-well which, he says, in turn helped him diversify into growing vegetables.

A paddy procurement guarantee and a bonus amount over the support prices gave him more cash that he could reinvest in his farm. In return Nishad voted for Raman Singh, who became popular across rural Chhattisgarh as ‘Chaur (rice) Wale Baba’ for his paddy procurement and rice distribution programmes.

Nishad is, however, concerned today if the returns from paddy would remain steady. The Raman Singh government, mired in a multi-crore food distribution scam that is threatening to dent its image, didn’t buy his entire paddy crop in the season that just ended the way it did this past decade. Plus, it has not paid him the bonus amount that it has been giving from its treasury by the season end.

This is the first year in a decade that Nishad says his returns actually declined as compared with his last year’s income. “Nuksaan to bahut hua, dhaan bhi pura nahi liya aur bonus bhi nahi diya (my loss is big; the government did not fully procure my paddy, nor gave me the bonus amount),” Nishad says. He’s not the only one sulking. In Chhattisgarh, paddy growers suddenly look unhappy with the chief minister.

More than a million paddy growers in Chhattisgarh are agitated over Raman government’s sudden shift in procurement policy and an inexplicable scrapping of bonus. They felt it was a breach of their trust. In the run up to December 2013 assembly elections, the BJP promised in its manifesto that if voted back to power, its government would procure “every grain of paddy produced” and hike the bonus to Rs 300 per quintal.

The state’s decision is actually driven by a paradigm shift in the Centre’s procurement policy.In June last year, immediately after coming to power, the Modi government asked all states to scrap bonus payment to wheat and paddy growers saying it “distorts markets and keeps private players out of the food business”. If they continued to pay bonus, the Centre warned in a letter to the states, Central agencies would restrict procurement leaving the states to bear the burden for surplus grain. The move was aimed apparently at tackling the rising food prices by keeping the surplus grain in the market.

So while the UPA government supported him in subsidizing his state’s paddy economy, the Modi government is hitting the ‘Chaur-wale Baba’ where it hurts the most. It is in a way forcing Chhattisgarh to cut its paddy procurement, scrap the bonus and ultimately alter its much-touted public distribution system (PDS) by bringing in direct cash transfers. But the policy shift is hurting small farmers like Nishad when rural economy is in tatters, even some of the Chhattisgarh ministers admit privately.

“It’s like Jor ka jhatka dhire se lage,” remarked the food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma. The Centre is slowly dismantling two drivers of green revolution: the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which is the backbone of food procurement, storage, transportation and distribution, and price guarantee.”

In the last week of March 2015, Professor M S Swaminathan, regarded as the father of India’s green revolution, urged the Modi government to implement recommendations of the Farmers' Commission he had chaired. Citing a need to safeguard interests of small farmers in the face of growing risks in agriculture due to climate change, he suggested the formulae for support price for commodities should be production cost plus 50 per cent.

“Our green revolution has been sustained only because of public procurement of wheat and rice at a fairly reasonable MSP,” he said. “There is no other profession that has such low return”, he said adding that farming is the riskiest profession in the world due to uncertain weather conditions arising from climate change. “The future will belong to nations with grains and not guns.”

Chhattisgarh began procuring paddy from growers immediately after its creation in 2001 at a premium of Rs 50 over the then prevailing support prices, mainly because farmers sold their produce in distress in open markets controlled by private traders and rice millers then. The state marketing federation procured paddy from farmers through cooperative societies, each catering to a cluster of 15-20 villages. The FCI bought the surplus rice after the state met its PDS requirement of about 2 MMT.

The burden of bonus was borne by the state; the Centre paid for procurement, distribution, handling and storage. This system may now be dumped if the Centre accepts the recommendations of a high-level committee led by BJP MP Shanta Kumar on the FCI restructuring. The committee gave its report in January 2015.

In 2014-15, Chhattisgarh’s paddy farmers earned, by a modest estimate, Rs 2,500 crore less on account of non-payment of bonus and part-sale of their produce to private traders at lower rates, a former Chhattisgarh minister who did not want to be named admitted.

Not just the growers but also about 1350 village cooperative societies, which work as sub-agents for the Chhattisgarh state marketing federation, a nodal agency for paddy procurement, face uncertainty, said Raviprakash Tamrakar, a farmer and chairman of the Vruttakar Sahkari Society, Nankatti. “We are being taken back to the previous system where millers and traders will exploit producers,” he feared.

Tamrakar, who leads a United Farmers’ front in Chhattisgarh, said the procurement system has several flaws that need to be rectified, but it’d be a disaster for farmers if the government scraps the policy. “A farmer has a guarantee that his produce would be procured at a support price and he would get bonus as an incentive to produce the grain; it stabilizes his economy and helps him meet his expenses.”

The high level committee in its report thought otherwise. In an 80-page exhaustive report, it explains how the current food-procurement system and FCI functioning is obsolete and hence must be changed. The committee has said the FCI should leave the procurement to state agencies and private players in the states where such a system is fully developed and move to eastern states like West Bengal where procurement is weak and where through private participation it could help build a robust system.

As regards the bonus, the committee recommends a per hectare crop-neutral cash subsidy to the tune of Rs 7000 but a total decontrol of fertilizer prices.

Modi had begun to speak of his idea about unbundling of the FCI into three separate arms even before he became the Prime Minister. A section of economists feel the Union government needs to tide over a “wasteful expenditure” on food subsidies that include of paying a high price to wheat and rice growers, while growers say the support prices still don’t meet their every-burgeoning production costs. While Raman Singh, who’s on a sticky turf over the multi-crore PDS scam, has not yet made any open remarks against this shift, people close to him say he is concerned.

The CM wrote to the PM last October months after the June diktat. Highlighting the plight of his state’s paddy growers, he urged Modi to reconsider his directive to stop bonus on paddy procurement.

In 2013-14, his government gave Rs 2,400 crore in bonus payments to farmers on 8 MMT of paddy it procured – it came to Rs 270 per quintal. The principle paddy procurement price cost Rs 13,000 crore at Rs 1360 a quintal. In his letter to the PM, the CM said withdrawal of bonus would “reduce buffer stock” and “adversely impact the overall food security of the country.” He said since the bonus is paid by the state, it should be left alone to decide about it.

Chhattisgarh’s promise of Rs 300/quintal as bonus for the 2014-15 was the highest in the country. To the PM, the CM said bonus payment is “the most important decision” of his government to improve farmers’ condition in his state. It was a promise made by the BJP in November 2013 assembly polls, he reminded. The CM said in his letter that 8 MMT of paddy would give about 5.4 MMT of rice and since the state needs only 2.4 MMT rice for its public distribution system, it would be left with a “surplus of 3 MMT” should the Centre not procure this rice in central pool. Chhattisgarh is the third largest contributor of rice to central pool with a significant share in the food subsidy bill.

A former minister in the Raman government said: “People are unhappy; I hope good sense prevails on the Prime Minister.” The Centre has not taken a call on the HLC report, but has accepted some recommendations. Last Wednesday, the Centre asked the FCI not to purchase food-grains in Punjab and Haryana. While the latter has reportedly toed the diktat, the former has pleaded for a phased-withdrawal. “It (the policy change) will have a strong impact on Chhattisgarh’s economy,” TS Singhdeo, the leader of opposition in Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly, said. “The BJP did not keep its promise to farmers,” he said. “We want the government to restore bonus.”

In the last decade, Chhattisgarh emerged as the largest exporter of non-Basmati rice in the country – a success largely credited to its policy of price incentive and procurement. Last year, the state procured about 8 MMT of paddy; this year (2014-15), it initially said it would restrict procurement to 10 quintal an acre, but later raised it to 15 quintals in view of ensuing local body polls.

But the damage had been done. The CM, who called for a ‘Congress-Mukt Chhattisgarh’, instead saw swathes of rural Chhattisgarh getting BJP-Mukt. In his home district of Rajnandgaon, his party could win the municipal corporation, but was wiped it out in the Zilla Panchayat on the issue of paddy price. Out of 24 seats, the Congress in that panchayat won 18 seats, while the BJP won the remaining six.

The ruling party’s defeat was spread across the state – it lost in the tribal belt of Surguja and Bastar, central plains, rural centres as well as Raipur, the biggest urban body.

By the end of the procurement season in February, Chhattisgarh government bought 6.3 MMT of paddy, nearly 1.7 MMT less compared to last year, when actual production has reportedly increased.

As Tamrakar, the farmers’ leader explained: “Farmers are angry; to dissuade them from selling their paddy to a society the government imposed so many conditions that small farmers felt it’s better to sell their paddy to private traders event at a loss.” Oblivious of the top-down policy changes, farmers like Nishad are wondering if Modi and Raman Singh have turned their backs to the promise of placing more money in the hands of rural peasantry.

Take his own case: On an acre, he earned at least Rs 7,000 less this year, Nishad says. He explains: He got 20 quintals of paddy on an acre, about 60 quintals overall in Kharif. If the government procured his entire crop, he would get Rs 1360 (MSP) a quintal. If you take Rs 270 bonus that it gave on a quintal last year, his income would stand at Rs 97,800. Exclude the input and production cost, he would make a profit of Rs 45,000, at least. But here’s how much he actually made this year. He sold 25 quintals to private traders at Rs 1100/quintal. He sold 35 quintals to the government at Rs 1360.

In all he earned Rs 75,100, or Rs 22,700 less than what he would have made had the government stuck to its promise of procuring his produce and giving him a bonus like it did last year.

Nishad says he would usually use the bonus amount to buy inputs for the next season. “Bonus payment usually comes this time when we begin the next season’s preparation,” he says.

“Will the state procurement system stay?” Nishad wonders. It’s not clear if Modi has made up his mind.

Across Chhattisgarh, the withdrawal of bonus and a drop in state procurement of paddy meant a drop in the income of farmers. Nishad is better off than other farmers, since he is among 20 per cent who have irrigation facilities. Someone like Kunjlal Tandon, a dalit farmer of two acres in Bodegaon village of Durg district, is not only unhappy; he’s mighty worried. For the next season he has no money, he says. Even a small bonus was his big support from March to June. Now, he says, he’ll either sell or lease out his land.

1

Recently in Wardha and Yavatmal (Vidarbha, Maharashtra)

Moreshwar Chaudhary was 32; Suraj Bhoyar, 29. On a wintry December 8, last, the two cotton growers consumed Monocrotophous, a commonly used pesticide, distraught by failed crops, falling income and mounting loans.

Moreshwar was uneducated and married; he left a year-old a son and wife in the middle of her second pregnancy. Suraj had a vocational diploma and was a bachelor. They had never met each other. But their short lives ran parallel and ended on the same note. They died within a span of few hours.

In a dingy mortuary of government hospital in Ghatanji town of Yavatmal district, that day, Suraj’s body was being taken in for post-mortem while Moreshwar’s was moved out. It became an unlikely meeting place for the two families joined in grief that stemmed from a common thread: cotton.

Rains came after the crops had failed. And when the abysmal yields began to flock the markets around November, prices had tanked. "This year," Suraj’s elder brother Swapnil says, “There is no crop, no price.”

Vidarbha, a region in Maharashtra notorious for farm suicides, has seen such coincidences before. Except this time they are glaring. As it turns out, the months since their suicides have seen more farmers take their lives in the region. The neighbouring Marathwada, which faces water stress, is also reporting a spurt in farmer suicides. Put together, roughly 400 farmers, mostly young, have taken their lives in past three months in these two regions. And suicides are just one symptom of a deepening crisis. Reports of distress sales of land and cattle have begun. So have migrations of people, who need work.

“This is a negative farm growth year,” says Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan-Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a fact borne out by the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2014-15 published on March 17. It says state’s agriculture growth rate was in the negative owing to bad monsoon and failed crops. Barring sugaracane, all other crops have suffered a steep decline in yields ranging from 20-60 per cent. “Vidarbha and Marathwada are like volcanoes,” he says. “That's because the entire rural economy is belted.”

By an official estimate, about 24,000 or over half of Maharashtra’s villages are facing drought-like conditions, a metaphor for drop in crop yields (indicated by a gauge called anewari) by over 50 per cent. That means roughly 10 million rural households – or two-thirds of the state’s peasantry is in trouble. Most of these are scattered all over the state, but worst affected ones are in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

It’s a deadly cocktail: erratic monsoon, crop failure, falling prices, growing indebtedness. As if this was not enough, a spell of hailstorm that accompanied incessant rains last week irreparably destroyed Rabi crops such as wheat and gram wherever they had been planted and were about to be harvested.

This is the first major test of the BJP governments in the state and Centre. The Fadnavis-government has announced an aid of Rs 2000 crore for drought-hit Maharashtra farmers; the Modi-government matched it with the same amount but details of how the money would be used are still sketchy.

Vijay Jawandhia, farmers’ leader and activist in Wardha, says: “Every year there are climatic aberrations and market volatilities; but the new government hasn’t stepped in to support farmers.” Maharashtra’s aid is paltry, he says. “The Centre hasn’t ensured better prices through market intervention.”

India’s domestic cotton consumption has been stagnant despite a jump in cotton acreage to a record 130 lakh hectares in 2014-15. That coincided with sluggish international prices and global demand.

At the beginning of current cotton cycle in June-2014, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a global think tank, said that with 1.8 million tons of surplus cotton and changes in China’s cotton policy, prices were unlikely to rise to the historic 2012-13 levels. That year a quintal of cotton fetched about Rs 6000 in local markets – perhaps the highest price in a decade or so.

In 2013-14 Moreshwar and Suraj fetched Rs 5000 or more per quintal of cotton and the yields were better (4 quintals per acre). This time the prices are hovering around Rs 3900-4000 and yields are two quintals an acre at best. So for the cotton growers of the region it came like a staggering pay cut.

China curbed its imports this year as it gave a greater incentive to its growers to improve yield and quality, as a result of which Xinjiang, the largest cotton-producing region in that country where the trial subsidy is being implemented, yielded a bigger harvest than last season, an ICAC release said last month. While China imported much of India’s cotton last three seasons, it did not in the 2014-2015 season.

In domestic markets, it meant a glut despite fall in cotton yields in states like Maharashtra. For, overall acreage and production has gone up. This should have prompted the government of India to intervene in the markets by proactively asking the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) to step up its procurement in different parts of the country like it does every year so that the prices did not fall below the minimum support price threshold, Jawandhia explains. But the CCI has been reluctant to procure cotton given the poor demand and lack of counter-guarantee from the Centre to bear the burden if it incurred losses.

For sugar, Modi government announced an export subsidy of Rs 4000 per tonne last month to tide over the industry losses; but refused to support cotton farmers the same way, Jawandhia points out.

Even Maharashtra’s cotton marketing federation, an agency that once ran the monopoly procurement programme for cotton from 1970s until the 2002 season, did not procure much, leaving the farmers at the mercy of private traders, who won’t offer higher price since neither cotton exports would pick up, nor the domestic demand. So the falling yields and prices came as a double whammy for the farmers, already beleaguered by a long depressing negative growth in agriculture and sagging incomes.

It was around 2 pm that day Suraj called his elder brother, Swapnil, 33, on his cell phone. It was to be their last conversation. “He told me to take care of our parents and then hung up,” Swapnil recalls at his village Anji. Suraj had minutes earlier left for home from Ghatanji cotton yard, distraught by the fact that their abysmal yields coupled with poor prices would not help them repay this year’s loans. Swapnil was still at the market when the call came. “Though I am older, Suraj looked after the farm as he was better educated,” he says. When he cut the call and could not be reached, Swapnil left his cotton-laden cart at the market and rushed home on a friend’s bike. Anji is five km from the town. Suraj, his mother told him, had left for the farm after touching her feet; he did not have his lunch.

“My fears came true when I reached our farm,” Swapnil recounts. Suraj lay unconscious in the midst of his cotton plants, some of them are wilting today and without any bolls. By the time he could be taken to Ghatanji hospital, Suraj had slid into a state of coma. Minutes later, Swapnil recalls, he died.

Around 4 pm his body was taken to the mortuary. That was when the Bhoyars realized that another young farmer’s body was being moved out. That was Moreshwar Chaudhary of Daheli village. “It was very heart-wrenching,” Anji sarpanch and a distant relative of the Bhoyars, Gajanan Bhoyar, recounts.

That morning Moreshwar went to his farm worried how to repay loans, his mother Gangabai recalls. Around 11 am, she was informed that her son had consumed pesticide and needed to be taken to a hospital. His friends put him in an auto and took him to Ghatanji hospital where doctors pronounced him “brought dead”. Moreshwar had consumed half-a-litre of pesticide, his neighbor Aakash Dambhare says. Tragedy had come calling back again on Gangabai exactly a decade after her husband Bharatrao committed suicide due to mounting indebtedness. She had lost her only son too.

On his 3-acre land that he began to till after his father’s demise, Moreshwar got 3 quintals of cotton this year when he should’ve got at least 15. A week before he took his life, he sold it for Rs 11,000. It would not help him repay loans. A look at his records shows Moreshwar was juggling multiple loans to meet his expenses. In his mother’s name he borrowed from two micro-finance institutions a sum of Rs 26,000. On that Moreshwar paid a weekly instalment of Rs 605. It was in addition to the crop loan from a bank and hand loans from relatives – together amounting to over Rs 1 lakh. He had also mortgaged his mother and wife’s gold ornaments.

Moreshwar had to borrow more than he could repay; he had no sources of income other than his farm.

Ten km away from Daheli, in Anji, the Bhoyars who own eight acres are yet to recover from the shock. Their story is no different. Loans now outweigh their income. Swapnil says they would need to sell off a portion of land to repay debt.

Suraj, an ITI diploma holder, lost his job five years ago after which he took to farming with his brother. “We could’ve sold our land; repaid our debts – what was the need to kill himself, we could have done something,” his bereaved father says. When rural youths get married at 24-25, Suraj kept postponing his wedding due to financial crunch, Swapnil says. "He was more of a friend to me."

Moreshwar got married three years ago. He had a year-old son, Kanhaiyya. His young widow, Yogita, is in the eighth month of her second pregnancy. Putting up a brave-face, she says holding Kanhaiyya close to her: “He just deserted us." Every time he gets up from his sleep the toddler searches for his father, Yogita says. Then his grandmother shows him Moreshwar's framed photograph. As the young-one smiles looking at the picture, the grandma cries.