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Maharashtra farmers' agitation: State worst performer in irrigation; policymakers deserve to be put on trial

The chickens are finally coming home to roost. Thousands of farmers in Maharashtra have started a long march from Thane to Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Besides farmers, tribals from North Maharashtra, Vidarbha, Ahmednagar and other parts of the state are also participating in the march.

Their demands include

  1. Implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report
  2. Complete farm loan waiver
  3. Drought compensation
Thousands of farmers and tribals participate in a two-day protest march from Thane to Mumbai. PTI

Thousands of farmers and tribals participating in a two-day protest march from Thane to Mumbai. PTI

Of the three listed above, only the third makes immense sense. The first two may find widespread support but could end up destroying the farmers and tribals in much the same way that excessive drinking of liquor does. But more on that later.

Drought compensation

Take the most reasonable of demands first. Maharashtra’s policymakers deserve to be put on trial. There are many legal grounds for doing so.

Take the table alongside. It shows the top ten states with the largest cultivable lands in the country. Look at the last column. Maharashtra is easily the worst performing state in terms of irrigation of total cultivable land. It could offer irrigation to just 18 percent of its arable land compared to higher numbers for every other state.

 

Chart1- Irrigation and farmer vulnerability

The reason for this isn’t hard to find. If one analyses the areas where irrigation reaches, it is usually those where (politican-favoured) sugarcane and cotton is grown. Somehow, to protect the interests of sugarcane and cotton farmers, the state has allowed two crimes to take place.

First, it did not allow irrigation to reach other areas. When one set of people usurp the rights of others, it becomes a criminal offence. And when farmers commit suicide, it is tantamount to abetting murder.

The second crime is the encouragement of tube wells and the pumping out of groundwater. Wherever cotton (and sugarcane) is grown outside of irrigated areas, it is usually by drawing copious amounts of water through tube wells. Both crops are water guzzlers. In other words, the state has abetted depletion of groundwater resources as well. That, in turn, makes other regions drought-prone, leaving little water for drinking as well. If that is not criminality, someone will have to try extremely hard to redefine the definition of the word.

The farmers are right to demand compensation for drought. But the organizers should take care to exclude those farmers who have the benefit of irrigation. Else, the agitation leaders will be allowing the favoured farmers to get a second favour – getting drought relief even when they are not eligible for it.

The agitation leaders should also file criminal charges against the state’s policymakers who have governed (or otherwise) this state for the past six decades. Otherwise, the agitation will not be significantly relevant. Compensation for a year against penury of a lifetime is too insignificant a redressal.

Other demands

The other two demands are too short-sighted. Take the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee recommendations. With due respects to MS Swaminathan, while his intentions were good, the solution is not fair.

 

Chart2-avg monthly household income by source

Consider the figures given out by NABARD in its latest report on agricultural earnings. Average income from cultivation for farmers was only Rs 3,140 per month. In many states farmers got less than one-third this amount.

The moment you allow bureaucrats to work out the costs of cultivation, they will disallow several costs. Then, even if you promise the farmers 150 percent of costs, they will get almost nothing. What the agitation leaders should be asking for is 50 percent of the market price of the agricultural produce. That means removing the stranglehold of middlemen. Even if you double farm incomes, getting double these pathetic amounts will amount to nothing. It should be 50 percent of market prices at least. That is what Verghese Kurien of the milk revolution demanded and got. This is what all farmers of all crops should get.

Then take the third demand – total waiver of all agricultural loans. That may sound nice and may enjoy widespread appeal. But the moment the farmers get this, you can be sure that banks will stop lending to farmers from next year. That will put them into the clutches of moneylenders again. It will be leaping off the frying pan into the fire.

The farmers deserve sympathy. They need to be supported by sensible policies. Unfortunately, the agitation leaders have made more demands of the type that will harm farmers and less of the type that will protect them in the years to come. The less said about the state’s policymakers, the better.

(The author is a senior journalist and tweets at @rnbhaskar1)


Updated Date: Nov 22, 2018 07:53 AM

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