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Already Crushed By Debt, Many Marathwada Farmers Face Another Bleak Sowing Season

19/06/2017 4:09 PM IST | Updated 26/06/2017 9:24 AM IST

Farmers protested and threw away their onion harvest as prices crashed. (Photo by Atul Deulgaonkar)
Farmers protested and threw away their onion harvest as prices crashed. (Photo by Atul Deulgaonkar)

By Atul Deulgaonkar*, Latur, Maharashtra

Barma Mind of Gangapur village in Latur district is a small farmer with 4.5 acres of land. He had taken a loan of ₹54,000 from an agriculture cooperative society in April 2015. Much of the loan was used for medical treatment of his son Santosh, who had consumed poison in a suicide attempt. The remaining amount was used for sowing in that season, which proved futile as there was no timely rainfall.

Mind's agriculture cooperative society charges 11% rate of interest to a defaulter, compared with 6% to a regular player. His debt has gone up to ₹69,000 as on 31 March 2017. He now waits for a loan waiver but is at a loss about how to organise input costs for this sowing season. The same story is being repeated in thousands of villages in Marathwada.

The Maharashtra government has announced a farm loan waiver for marginal farmers, which is expected to cost the state government ₹30,000 crore. This follows a similar announcement by the Uttar Pradesh government in April that is worth ₹35,000 crore. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced that the state government will provide immediate relief of ₹10,000 to every farmer owning less than 5 acres of agricultural land. He said, "Banks would be directed to immediately give ₹10,000 to each farmer, especially those in debt and with small and marginal landholding, to enable them to procure seeds and fertilizers."

But a government resolution has listed 19 criteria that have to be fulfilled by a loan applicant, making it difficult for small farmers to avail of the relief.

Too many riders

But a government resolution (no 0617/117/2 dated June 14, 2017) has listed 19 criteria that have to be fulfilled by a loan applicant, making it difficult for small farmers to avail of the relief. Latur District Central Cooperative Bank Ltd, one the five best cooperative banks in the state, offered ₹675 crore to 220,000 farmers in 2016, out of which 30,193 farmers are (6%) defaulters. "Government criteria are so clumsy that hardly 10% farmers would be eligible for this relief," a cooperative bank official said on condition of anonymity. Sudhakar Shinde, President of the Farmers Council of Latur district was also critical of the rules.

Meanwhile, the state government has asked all nationalised banks and district cooperative banks to submit information about crop loans of up to ₹50,000 given to farmers. This clearly indicates that details of loan waiver will be available only by the end of July. How farmers will get loans this season remains a mystery.

Messy situation

In this messy situation of loan waiver and relief, farmers cannot afford to wait. They have to finish the sowing in the next 15 days. In Latur district, where the major crop is soybean, 22% sowing has already been completed. The cost of cultivation of soybean is about ₹20,000 per acre, out of which at least ₹10,000 is necessary in the beginning. So Mind of Gangapur is in urgent need of at least ₹25,000 for seed, fertilizer and labour. As usual, he is rushing to relatives, friends and moneylenders and this will only increase his indebtedness.

In this messy situation of loan waiver and relief, farmers cannot afford to wait. They have to finish the sowing in the next 15 days.

Farmers began protesting in Maharashtra in April 2017. Cultivators from Puntamba in Ahmednagar district decided to go on strike from 1 June. The news spread in the onion bowl of India in neighbouring Nasik district and later on to nearby districts. All farmers decided to fight together for loan waiver and remunerative prices.

After a gap of almost 20 years, when Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers union, had expressed their anger, Maharashtra has observed this mood of distress and protests. Many small farmers organisations have joined hands and changed strategy to block the supply of milk and vegetables. Though the first week of June is usually full of hectic farming activities, the farmers remained united.

Swaminathan recommendations

To study the conditions of farmers, the government of India, under the chairmanship of M.S. Swaminathan, constituted the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) on 18 November 2004. The NCF submitted its final report on 4 October 2006. The Swaminathan panel report has recommended that farmers be paid 50% over and above the cost of the crop as the minimum support price (MSP) to improve their economic condition. The report is gathering dust.

Now, the entire farming community across India is demanding implementation of the report's recommendations. For the first time since Independence, the first week of June is witnessing furious farmers taking to the streets in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and other parts of the country. "Which crop should we opt for sowing? We do not know. Government officials do not guide and market does not indicate anything," 72-year-old Rajabhau Deshmukh of Patoda village in Beed district of Maharashtra told VillageSquare.in.

The Swaminathan panel report has recommended that farmers be paid 50% over and above the cost of the crop as the minimum support price (MSP) to improve their economic condition. The report is gathering dust.

Coordinator of Famers' Coordination Committee in Maharashtra, Vijay Jawandhiya explains, "Market prices of cereal, pulses, oil seeds, spices have crashed. Last year pigeon pea fetched at ₹2,000 per quintal. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to grow more to arrest import of pulses. Farmers responded and produced 74% more. India, the world's largest producer, importer and consumer of pulses, has set another record by harvesting a massive 221 lakh tons, a quantum jump from the previous year's 163 lakh tons."

The suicide note of Sheetal Vyankat Wayal. (Photo by Atul Deulgaonkar)
The suicide note of Sheetal Vyankat Wayal. (Photo by Atul Deulgaonkar)

Price crash due to imports

However, just before harvesting in December 2016, the government of India imported 63 lakh tons of pigeon pea from Myanmar and market prices fell to ₹2,700-3,500 per quintal. The minimum support price for pigeon pea is ₹5,050 per quintal but the government of Maharashtra stopped purchasing. Soybean prices dropped from ₹4,000 per quintal to ₹2,500, triggering farmer protests.

On 14 April, 21-year-old Sheetal Vyankat Wayal from Bhise-Wagholi village in Latur ended her life by jumping into a well. Sheetal wrote in her note, "My parents are poor and they don't have money for my marriage. I am ending my life to lessen my father's burden and to end the dowry practice in my Maratha community." Exactly a year ago, Mohini Bhise (18) from the same village committed suicide so that her poor farmer father didn't have to sell his one-acre of land for her marriage.

Just before harvesting in December 2016, the government of India imported 63 lakh tons of pigeon pea from Myanmar and market prices fell to ₹2,700-3,500 per quintal.

Now, even the usually optimistic young are losing hope. Climate change and rising expenses with diminishing returns are turning the life of farmers wretched. According to official data, in Maharashtra, 3,146 farmers ended their lives in 2013, 2,568 in 2014, 3,228 in 2015, and 3,552 in 2016. This year augurs ill too, despite the declaration of a loan waiver.

Dr Swaminathan, the father of Green Revolution, says that farmers need improved and stable income and not loan waivers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Green Revolution and the 11th anniversary of the submission of his report. Reacting to the killing of five farmers while protesting in Mandsour in Madhya Pradesh, he urged, "Long-term solutions are important to ensure that farming remains an occupation of choice among a majority of our country's rural population."

Atul Deulgaonkar is a journalist based in Latur in Maharashtra.

This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

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