A video that went “viral” on social media recently shows a Maharashtra farmer savagely destroying his cauliflower crop with a hoe, after receiving a paltry price for his produce earlier.
The farmer, Premsing Chavan, a resident of Pohegaon village in Jalna, had spent Rs 40,000 cultivating tomato and cauliflower on his land. On March 10, he took his crops to the market, spending Rs 600 on transportation. The produce fetched him Rs 442. “I was so angry that had there been pesticide available on my farm that day, I would have consumed it and ended my life,” Chavan told a Marathi news channel.
India’s agricultural fields have turned into killing fields, sucking lifeblood out of those who till them. They need planned, long-term, comprehensive answers. Governments, on the other hand, are offering little more than knee-jerk reactions from crisis to crisis, the favourite so far being loan waivers.
The Kisan long march in Mumbai last week caught the nation's attention.
The public wakes up to the farm distress only when “arresting visuals” hit our attention – the Kisan Long March in Mumbai, Tamil Nadu farmers protesting with dead rats in their mouths at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, farmers dumping vegetables and spilling milk on the roads in Maharashtra, getting shot by the police in Madhya Pradesh. The issue quickly turns political, and loan waivers make for a grand gesture – a happy ending that can bring electoral dividends.
The farmers then fade from public attention, back to their poorly irrigated fields, dependent on the vagaries of the weather, not in control of the prices the fruits of their labour will earn. However, there are several problems that have nothing to do with loans, and which need long-term solutions that will have to be worked out far from the public gaze. A look at some of the crises to hit Maharashtra, reeling under farmer suicides, in the past few years alone amply demonstrates how political will to find such solutions is lacking.
Chavan, the farmer in the “viral video”, was forced to cultivate tomatoes and cauliflowers after his cotton crop was destroyed by the bollworm pest. He is not alone. According to estimates, over 50 per cent of the cotton crop in the state has been lost to the bollworm.
Experts have long pointed out the need for more robust, genetically modified seeds. Yet, the 2017 attack caught the state napping. It announced compensation and began a survey of affected areas in the last quarter of the year. However, delayed compensation is not of much use to farmers, who need money before they can begin kharif sowing.
This pushed them to moneylenders, triggering the fatal cycle of debts.
A recent report in The Indian Express shows the deep discrepancy in the irrigation facilities available. Only 19 per cent of Maharashtra’s cropped area is under irrigation. Of this, “sugarcane, which occupies just four per cent of the state’s gross cropped area (GCA), takes away 65 per cent of the irrigation water, while cotton, soyabean, sorghum, maize, gram and tur, which together constitute more than 60 per cent of the GCA, get about eight per cent of the irrigation water.”
The BJP government has recognised the problem, and under chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has launched the jalyukta shivir scheme to make villages water-sufficient by digging wells and ponds. However, it will be many years before the scheme can cover s substantial part of the state. Also, its unscientific implementation and overuse of machinery has meant that it is actually leading to groundwater depletion.
The year 2017 saw farmers protesting for the procurement of tur daal. A bumper harvest had caused the prices to crash. However, the bumper harvest was for a reason – the government had asked farmers to increase the area under tur cultivation, after suffering a shortage in 2016.
Procurement – where the government buys crops from farmers at a fixed minimum rate – began district-wise, and the government soon reached its target, without covering all parts of the state. After protests, it began procurement again, but by this time, many desperate farmers had sold their produce to private buyers at dirt cheap prices.
It was the government that had asked farmers to grow more tur. Why couldn't procurement arrangements be made in time?
There are other solutions that can go a long way to help farmers – setting up food processing units that can add value to produce, for instance, by turning potato to chips or tomatoes to sauce, in villages, establishing a pan-India market so that crops glutting a market in one state can find buyers in another.
While starts have been made here and there – the National Agriculture Market (e-NAM), which seeks to turn crop mandis online is one such initiative – a lot more needs to be done.
The recent Kisan Long March in Mumbai was hailed as a “red resurgence” after the BJP won Tripura just a week ago. Far too many people sentimentally quoted Pablo Neruda – “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming” – to describe it, which shows how abjectly they missed the point, and why the government reacts with empty, grand gestures to the farm crisis. The farmers were not marching with red flags to make a political statement, theirs was a march for survival. But both the government, and the public, seem incapable of going beyond the optics.