The year 2014 is coming to a cold and foggy close. It is December 23; observed as ‘Kisan Diwas’ (Farmers’ Day), the birth anniversary of the late Prime Minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh. We travel to village Kakripur a part of the Baghpat in Uttar-Pradesh, his karam bhoomi. I can figure that even though his legacy still lasts and fond memories of the farmer leader have not faded, there is no one to carry it forward. Farmer unity lies scattered as farmers are split on caste lines and by the interplay of the forces of multi-party panchayat politics.

The road from Bhagpat to Shamli is as bad as it can get. It has potholes in equal measure as India’s farm policy. Uday Veer Singh of the Maharaja Surajmal Education Society is taking us to visit Umesh Pawar, 45, who grows sugarcane and sells it to the Ramala Co-operative Sugar Mills Ltd..

Umesh Pawar tells me the price of cane is same as last year’s: `280 a quintal, albeit with a caveat
that mills can pay `240 now and the remaining `40 later. Except for the Ramala Co-operative Sugar Mills Ltd, no other mill pays on time. Others, like Malakpur Sugar Mill and Titawi Sugar Mill, private sugar mills, have not paid farmers after receiving the harvest from the last season.

Uday Veer informs me that “Malakpur Sugar Mill owes over `200 crore to farmers and Titawai `166 crore. This can only happen when the state government is in league with the private sugar mill owners”. Most other mills too have not paid on time and there is no provision for interest on late payments.

The issue of sugarcane pricing too remains unresolved with the Rangarajan Committee’s recommendations not accepted in practice. The problem is that no effort has been made to take farmers into confidence when framing policy. Policy dictated by the industry is adopted by the government for the industry’s convenience. Yet, the cane commissioner, an important instrument of the state government, is equally responsible for the well-being of the farmer and industry.

A farmer is only allowed to sell his cane to a particular sugar mill only. He is at the mercy of this sugar mill owner in perpetuity for accepting his cane and paying for it on time. Over the years, industry has been so busy greasing palms of leaders for short term gains that now it stands troubled and is looking towards policy-led expediency.

Umesh says that sugarcane variety normally used is No. 150 or No. 767. Newer varieties have not been adopted in a large measure. Yields of 50 quintals per acre (five bighas make an acre) are considered good. Considering the quality of soil, favourable weather and abundant water, the farmers should get at least 70 quintals per acre. Extension advice is non-existent for small, illiterate farmers. Earlier there were ‘Kisan Sahayaks’ to help farmers. The government has supposedly advertised for the post of the ‘Sahayak’ now.

Sowing can be done in May, after wheat is harvested. Sugarcane can also be sown later in September, along with mustard, when pest attacks are less frequent given that the weather is dry. It takes nearly 18 months for a good harvest though. The method of planting sugarcane has changed drastically. Earlier neighbouring farmers would get together and plant sugarcane for each other free of cost in an informal co-operative operation called dangwara. The farmer on whose field sugarcane was being planted only provided food.

All that has changed now. The cost for planting cane is `5300 per bigha. Sowing is done on ridges.
Machine sowing has not caught fancy of the farmers as yet because even with machines they need three people. The cost of hiring a tractor with a rotovator for one field operation is `250 per bigha.

At the time of sowing Umesh uses 10 kgs of DAP, six to seven kgs of urea and two kgs of zinc. He also applies two tractor trollies (around 20 quintal each) of cow manure per bigha. Earlier cow manure was available from animals kept at home but now these now need to be purchased. Farmers hardly keep oxen and even number of milch animals per family has fallen from four to one.

There is great quantity of spurious DAP being sold in the market. There is no black marketing of urea but farmers are forced to buy other agriculture inputs with a 50 kg bag of urea. This amounts to nothing less than black marketing of urea. The rate of urea in Uttar Pradesh is `324 per 50 kg bag that is far more than `267 per 50 kg bag in Punjab.

There is a problem of wild animals like the wild boar. One needs to go to the block development officer (BDO) to get permission to kill the animals. Once the BDO gives permission, one needs to get it verified from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM). It is a cumbersome process and no one seems to know anyone in the area who has gone through the process in recent times.

Harvesting sugarcane has become a very expensive proposition and the cost can vary from `30 to `35 per quintal. Normally, a couple of people can harvest around 18 quintals of sugarcane per day. Labour inflow from Bihar to work on the farms has slowed down. I asked the farmer if it was due to development in Bihar in the last decade. He seemed to be sure that there was no development in Bihar but that MGNREGA jobs there were stopping the traditional labour force from migrating in search of work. He rues that people do not want to work on the farms anymore.

Another issue for farmers is getting sugarcane accepted at the sugar mills in time. Sugar mills give
each farmer small slips of paper called parchi. Normally, the mill gives a parchi for 15, 30 or 45 quintals. Parchi is only given to the farmer two days before the date and time he is supposed to deliver cane to the sugar mill.

Farmers often prefer to sell sugarcane to jaggery (gur) making units for `180 per quintal, which is 33 per cent cheaper than what the mills pay for two reasons. First, jaggery units pay cash and accept immediate delivery. Second, if the farmer manages to harvest the sugarcane in time (harvesting depends on the parchi), he can sow wheat. A delayed harvest means that he cannot sow an additional crop. The mills make more money from buying the same sugarcane if they purchase it in the later months. Mills pay on the basis of the weight and sell the processed cane that depends on the sugar content. In the later months, the weight of the cane is lower because the water content drops while sugar content remains same.

Umesh is also sceptical about enzymes being sold by shopkeepers to farmers for better productivity. I believe it is the lack of extension that has led to this perception. The farmers must not only be sold the product but also be told how and when to use it. According to Umesh, pesticides are becoming “strong”, meaning toxic as older pesticides no longer control pests.

There are water woes too. The depth of the tube-well has fallen from 10 feet to 50 feet as the ‘Poorvi Jamuna Nahar’, the Jamuna canal has not been functioning properly. Supply has improved in the last two years though.

In winter, electricity is available for eight to ten hours and in summers it is available for four hours a day only. When farmers do not pay electricity bills, the electricity company files a police case against them in the police station and arrest warrants are issued immediately. This would not have happened in the time of the late farmer leader, Mahendra Singh Tikait, says Uday Veer. Tikait gave a lot of confidence to the farmers to speak up for their rights. With his departure, farmer hopes are disappearing too.

As usual, other farmers gather and the discussion veers around to social issues. Around 70 per cent of the parents of rural children are uneducated. Farmers are more hard-working than worldly wise and get taken for a ride by political parties. The gathering is also of the opinion that no political parties want farmers to be successful lest they become a political force. It takes effort to bring the discussion back on track of farming issues of credit.

Credit is easily available from banks at 11 per cent. Completing the paper work for a loan takes between seven and 10 days and costs around `3,000. Bank managers do not ask for bribes, I am told. Loan for a one to ten bighas farm is called a “small file” and for a farm size larger than ten bighas is called a “big file”. The practice is that villagers can access loan from a particular service branch of a designated bank. Villagers of Kakripur have to go to Canara Bank that is six kilometres away. I have not heard this before and I am not sure if this is an informal arrangement between banks or has legal sanction.

Farmers are more interested in telling their tales, of memories and uncertainties. The chant that children are not interested in farming also echoes through the conversation. Lack of economic opportunities is leading to increasing crime in the countryside. An old farmer reminisces that earlier villages were self-dependent and most daily requirements would be met in the village itself. Cobblers, ironsmiths, utensil makers and even cloth makers making gadda or khaddar (a coarse cloth) resided in the village. With cottage industry dead now, one has to go to the town for everything.

Earlier there was no money but there was happiness now there is money but no happiness.