Jun 1, 2013 – Not far from the killing fields of Vidharbha in Maharashtra, I am on a visit to attend a programme of the Bharat Krishak Samaj fraternity. On my way from Aurangabad to Dhule, I stop to understand the distress of Maharashtra farmers. My first stop is in village Shivrai, with a population of 2,500 in Taluk Kannad, where more than half the farmers stay on the fields adjoining the village.
Here I meet Bhaskar Ram Rao Ighe who is in his mid-50s. He owns 16 acres of land and his farm is largely dependent on the mercy of the rain gods. He grows only one crop a year. Bhaskar has an open well with which he can irrigate up to an acre and a half of his land. His choice of crop is dictated by the availability of labour. On half his land he grows cotton and, on the other half, he grows maize. He would have preferred to grow cotton but is strapped for labour.
Labour costs Rs 5 per kg for the first picking of cotton and Rs 10 per kg for the second picking and can pick up to 60 to 70 kg of cotton per day. With labour in short supply, farmers sometimes have to go to the taluk to get additional labour in peak harvesting season. The Commission of Agriculture Cost and Prices, however, refuses to offset all labour cost increases while recommending a minimum support price.
Bhaskar’s normal cotton harvest is between eight and 10 quintals per acre. He uses fertilizers at the time of sowing and at intervals of 30 and 60 days and uses Bollgard-II seed. On the acre and half for which he has supplementary source of water, Bhaskar waters his cotton field and takes a third flush of cotton. This takes the yield up to 12 quintals per acre. It is very difficulty to accept these as the correct figures though.
Bhaskar does not own a tractor and hires services from those who operate tractors as a business. The village has 60 to 70 tractors usually of 45 hp. The cost of nangar ploughing and other operations for sowing a crop is Rs 2,500 per acre.
Earlier, the Maharashtra government had a monopoly on the purchase of cotton and the price the farmers received was less than what farmers in adjoining states like Gujarat got. Farmers were forced to smuggle their cotton to other states for better prices. Now, most of the cotton is sold at the doorstep, purchased by local traders. This is an absolute contrast to states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where much of the sale take place in the anaj (grain) mandi. Farmers wonder why the price of cotton has not gone up despite a bad monsoon last year and resultant poor cotton harvest.
Bhaskar’s cow gives five to six litres of milk per day and the milk can be sold at the collection centre in the village for Rs 15 per litre. There is a veterinary doctor available on call who charges a very nominal fee. But he also has advanced devices for booking appointments for the ones who can afford them, like the telehealth software veterinary medicine. In villages declared drought affected, the government has set-up chara chavni fodder centres where free fodder is provided to the cattle owned by farmers.
Deferred payment of electricity bills has been permitted as a part of the drought package. Depending on the size of the land holding, interest free loans of up to Rs 50,000 are available. The government supplies drinking water for one hour a day in a common place from where people can fill their utensils. The village has a school where children receive education up to class 10. There is a nurse in the village. Officers of the agriculture department also visit Bhaskar’s farm. Diwali is the biggest festival.
What is shocking is the lack of irrigation facilities and lack of infrastructure. Considering the revenue generated by the state, there might have been no government intervention here. Even so, I choose to double check and make another stop to get a first-hand account of the apathy that is clearly visible.
As I travel to Dhule from Aurangabad, I cross Chalisgaon ghat, an imposing mountain barrier like the “End of the world” near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and come to the village of Shirud in Taluk Dhulia, where I meet up with Devidas Jagannath Chitodkar. Devidas owns four acres of land that are completely dependent on rainfall.
Devidas uses no fertilizers nor does he have an open well because he cannot afford either. Whatever meagre saving he had, he spent on educating his elder son, now a teacher in a government primary school. He only uses farm yard manure. His cotton yield was only a quintal and a half per acre due to deficit rainfall while his best yield is three quintals per acre. No agriculture officer has ever visited him. Cotton is the most profitable crop; therefore everyone in the area grows cotton. He buys his seeds and agriculture inputs from a private shop. He uses no fertilizers but he does use pesticides. The soil has never been tested. Devidas informs me that if there is assured water supply on the land the price of land doubles.
Devidas owns a cow that gives two litres of milk per day. He uses his own buffaloes for sowing and tilling his land. No drought aid has been made available to him. Normally, he picks his own cotton but when he needs to hire labour he has to shell out Rs 200 for six hours and the labourer picks between 18 kg and 20 kg. The cost of labour has doubled in the last five years and not only because of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) provisions. As Devidas sympathetically explains, the cost of living has also increased substantially; what economists will call inflation.
Both Bhaskar and Devidas depend on newspapers and Doordarshan news to figure out the price at which to sell the cotton. They also talk to others in the village and get feedback from cell phone helplines like IFFCO Kisan Sanchar ltd.
Cheap grain is available to the people depending on their economic status; the quantity and price varies. For Rs 600, Devidas gets 50 kg of rice and 50 kg of wheat every three months. Before the government started distributing cheap grain and induced farmers to grow cash crops, the farmers grew and ate bajra and jowar. The food habits have changed and they now eat wheat. I asked the farmers if they would return to their original diet of bajra and jowar if it was provided instead of wheat but they seemed very reluctant to switch back.
Life has changed beyond recognition for both in the last few decades. There are no radios in the village any more because people prefer to watch TV and listen to radio broadcasts on cell phones. There were around 40 land line telephone connections in the villages that have been completely replaced by more than 500 mobile connections.
While Bhaskar and Devidas have much in common, access to water, government programmes and size of land holding lead to varied perceptions, aspirations and different levels of frustration.Demands and aspirations are directly proportional to reduced land holdings and poverty levels. While the larger farmer blames the state government for not delivering and implementing central government policies and programmes, the smaller farmer, with no access to government funds and largesse, blames both the central and the state governments.
A common question that I generally ask farmers is what they would like to demand from the government. Bhaskar has a slew of demands like 24-hour electricity, cheaper seeds and fertilizers. If the price of fertilizer goes up, so should the price of the produce. Bhaskar elaborates: the price of DAP has increased from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 but the price of cotton has remained constant at Rs 4,000. The smaller farmer wants the government to dig him a well so that he can draw his water and be self-sufficient for all times to come.
The village has one computer and Bhaskar proudly says that his younger son, studying in Aurangabad, owns a computer too. He does not want his children to be farmers. Farming is only for those who have no jobs. His older son works with a local bank but the youngest has no option.
On the other hand, Devidas cannot send his son to school as he is required as a farm hand. Life is in a mess with little government intervention. Devidas believes that for the first time the small rain-fed farmer is worse off than a landless peasant, while Bhaskar, who owns 16 acres, tends to disagree. The advisors to the government of India tend to subscribe to Bhaskar’s views and fail to understand that small farms are unviable and something more than mere policy announcement is needed to restore them to viability.
A government can only be as good as its advisors though. That is the Indian farmer’s misfortune.