In Karnataka's Boragaon, farmers suffer losses worth lakhs in lockdown merely months after damaging floods
As the country shuts over a nationwide outbreak of the coronavirus, farmers in Karnataka's Boragaon village stare at rotting crops and losses worth lakhs already, bringing their lives to a screeching halt.
“Be it any crisis, it’s the farmer who has to suffer. If the farmer won’t suffer on behalf of others, how will society survive?” asks 48-year-old Sanjay Barwade, a farmer from the village of Boragaon in the Chikodi taluka of Karnataka’s Belagavi district. After his two-and-a-half-acre-wide field was ravaged in the August 2019 floods, Barwade took an agricultural loan of Rs 40,000 for his rabi crops. Thereon, it was going according to plan – 3,000 kilograms of beans, 100 kilograms of coriander, and sugarcane would be harvested on an acre of land, which was due to mature post-November this year.
However, within three days in the last week of March, he had to sell off all his produce. All he had to do was reach the nearby Shahapur weekly market in Maharashtra’s Ichalkaranji town (12.5 kilometres from Boragaon). “The moment I reached at 3 pm (a day after the Janata curfew was announced on 22 March), the police started beating me up and asked me to go back,” he says, recalling the trauma. “The lockdown wasn’t even declared then.”
After the 21-day nationwide lockdown was declared by the central government on 24 March, the farmer's troubles escalated. His only hope now was to sell 3,100 kilograms of vegetables on his bike in his village of Boragaon.
Defying the police, he somehow managed to sell a meagre 80 kilogram of beans for half the price — at Rs 20 per kilogram — within three days. Barwade, like several other farmers from his village, couldn’t buy more time due to the lack of cold storage facilities in 40°C of heat. “I gave 100 kilograms of dhaniya (coriander) to the goats. At least they ate it,” he says.
In the next few days, all his beans had rotten away. Collectively, the vegetables were worth Rs 1.2 lakhs. He now hopes to recover the losses by selling sugarcane. “Who knows what will happen next?” he says. Sanjay's skepticism arises due to the losses he faced in the floods last year that set him back by at least 40 tonnes of sugarcane worth another Rs 1.2 lakhs.
His plans to farm another crop for the next five months are now on hold. “There’s lots of water for the crops, but until the lockdown is over, we can’t do anything,” he says.
As of 12 April, India reported over 8,000 cases of COVID-19, with 214 in Karnataka, including 6 deaths in the state.
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Raju Kottalage, 40, had never thought he would stop watering his crops one day. “It all changed within the first week of April,” he says, adding that crops of cabbage, cucumber and brinjal that he had cultivated are going to rot anyway. Usually after harvesting, the farmers of Boragaon village, which lies near the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, sell their produce within a day or two at Ichalkaranji or Kolhapur (37.5 km from Boragaon). “It’s the summers. The crops don’t last long,” he explains.
Before Raju decided to cut the water supply for his crops, he had already incurred a loss of Rs 50,000, owing to a lack of access to the vegetable markets. He owns four acres of land, of which three acres are dedicated to seasonal vegetables and fodder for animals, while the remaining acre is for harvesting sugarcane.
A week ago, he was left with 800 kilograms of cucumber. “The wholesale vegetable vendors buy it at Rs 30-40 per kilogram,” he says. However, the lockdown forced him to look for buyers within Boragaon itself, even though a market doesn’t exist in the village. Cabbage and cucumber are usually planted in January in Boragaon, and harvested by the end of March or the first week of April.
Barwade uses a simple analogy to explain this. “If all the farmers (who usually sell their produce outside) are now selling it in the village, how will anyone get a good price? Even if the entire village buys these vegetables, there will be a surplus.”
At first, he distributed a sizeable portion of his cucumbers and cabbages to the villagers, eventually letting a bigger herd of goats eat the remaining produce. “At least they will get to eat something,” he says. However immediately after, Raju paints a starkly contrasting image that resonates with the mounting frustration of an ill-planned lockdown. “There are places that do not have any vegetables, and when we have vegetables in our fields, we can’t sell it to them. What sort of disease is this?”
In the floods last year, the latter lost nearly 60 tonnes of sugarcane cultivated on his one acre of land, which could've easily fetched him Rs 1.68 lakhs. “We haven’t received any compensation for that; what will the government give us now? It’s the farmer who has to bear it all,” Raju says, visibly exasperated at his plight of having to endure two major disasters within the span of just eight months. “First, it was the flood, and now this coronavirus."
A strict lockdown has been imposed in Boragaon, with police brutality scaring the farmers into staying home. “How many vegetables will we be able to sell from 7-10 am? What if we contract the virus?” Raju asks. With information on social distancing flooding television and social media, his family members have become overtly cautious. “The prices have fallen so low that the farmers can’t even meet the cost of production now,” he explains. Another risk is of the produce turning overripe, which reduces the rates considerably, and sometimes doesn’t even fetch a single rupee.
As per the Census in 2011, Boragaon has a population of 16,010, with majority being involved in agriculture and farming. Mahaveer Kottalage, 21, after dropping out of his undergraduate course in commerce, started assisting his father Jayapal on their four-acre plot of land. “If we go out to sell the vegetables, the police ask us to get a permit. When we go to the Panchayat, they redirect us to the Sadalga Police Station, which is 7.5 kilometres from our village. The village borders are sealed, and there are at least two-to-three policemen everywhere. How will we reach the police station without getting beaten up?” he asks.
Besides farming, the dairies are also crumbling in the lockdown. The Kottalages own three buffaloes, and manage to get 13 litres of milk every day. “Sometimes the dairies are functioning, while most of the times they are shut,” he says, adding that the local dairies have now issued a cap on the quantity of milk they will be buying. “The other day, my parents had to sell milk for as low as Rs 35 (against a market rate of Rs 54 per litre), going door-to-door in Boragaon,” Mahaveer says. He himself had distributed five litres of milk for free, incurring a loss of least 12 litres in three days.
The family grew cabbage, beans, brinjal and guar, besides dedicating an entire acre solely to sugarcane. The guar, which normally fetches them Rs 80 per kilogram, is now being sold at a paltry sum of Rs 20 per kilogram. “At least 600 kilograms of beans were destroyed because we couldn’t sell it,” he says. The vegetables are now rotting in the field. “We’ve lost a minimum of Rs 20,000 worth of brinjals, and beans worth Rs 24,000,” Mahaveer adds, estimating a total loss of at least Rs 1.5 lakhs.
Of the 10,000 cabbages that their harvest had produced, a mere 600 could be sold for Rs 10 each. “We lost at least Rs 94,000 over this,” the 21-year-old says. The interstate and intrastate bans on travel, besides curfew in several villages, have left the transport system for farmers bruised. Like several others in their village, Mahaveer and his father now plan on abandoning the next crop.
“For the next two to three months, we won’t be able to cultivate anything. Nobody pays attention to the farmers,” he rues, as Sanjay Barwade sums up the troubles of farmers in one line: “I am a farmer, and now I have nothing to eat.”
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