Editor's note: This article is the second in a three-part series on the condition of farmers in Maharashtra after the state announced its Rs 34,000-crore loan waiver.
Beed: While the Maharashtra government claims its Rs 34,000-crore farm loan waiver will rid 90 percent of the state's farmers of their debt, the situation on the ground indicates otherwise.
The loan waiver is hardly a silver bullet for our agriarian crisis.
Agriculturists and experts say it is the entire mechanism of the farming sector that needs to be repaired. Waiving off the loan will make little difference, they add, citing irrigation, crop insurance, guaranteed purchase of harvest, agricultural research and the government's import policy as key areas of concern.
Vijay Jawandiya, a farmer leader from Vidarbha, notes that even after the Centre announced a massive farm loan waiver in 2008, the farmers still found themselves in dire straits. He says the inefficacy of loan waiver is evident.
"As long as the farmers are not earning enough, they will borrow from the banks or moneylenders," he says, stressing the need for realistic solutions such as the Minimum Support Price (MSP).
The government announced the MSP at the beginning of sowing season, assuring farmers their harvest will be bought for nothing less than the specified rate. However, Maharashtra farmers allege the government doesn't always honour the MSP.
Shivaji Bhutekar, 56, is a farmer from Hivardi village in Jalna district. Bhutekar tells Firstpost how the farmers had a good yield of soybean and tur pulse last year. But the massive harvest rendered the government unable to procure it from them at the MSP.
He says farmers like him had sown pulses only because the government reccomended it. He says that he had to salvage his investment by selling to a trader at a rate lower than the MSP.
Milind Murugkar, a policy researcher and agriculture expert, says that ensuring that farmers are paid MSP is one of the most immediate solutions to the agrarian crisis.
Last year, the MSP flattered to deceive the region's farmers. This year, an erratic monsoon did the farmers in. Buoyed by the prediction of good rains, farmers like Bhutekar took up sowing after the first phase of the monsoon.
However, between 7 June and 19 August, Marathwada received only 38 percent of the expected rainfall. The dry spell destroyed soybean, sugarcane, jowar and oilseed crops among others.
Bhausaheb Daund, 55, a farmer from Palavan village in Beed district, says he borrowed Rs 40,000 from a moneylender to sow cotton on three acres of his land. He lost almost half his crop because of the below-average rain.
The dependence on rains for irrigation coupled with drought for the past few years has made agriculture a risky proposition in Maharashtra.
But Vishwanathrao Vasare, an agricultural engineer at Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Jalna, says the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the weather. He says the government knows well that Marathwada is prone to drought and that the government should make arrangements for irrigation well before the sowing season.
He says farmers can dig wells, small ponds or borewells for irrigation, but even this might not help as some parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha have patchy power supply, which won't let pumps fetch water from the source.
In 2014, the state launched the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan project. Its aim was to make the state drought-free by 2019. But many experts called the exercise "unscientific" and said that rather than restore the groundwater table, it instead depleted it.
In Bhutekar's village, Naam Foundation, an NGO, dug a canal to store rainwater for irrigation. While it filled to the brim last year, this year's dismal rainfall has left it lying fallow.
Naam coordinator Rajabhau Shelke says that India, as a society, is "water illiterate". He adds that we urgently need to solve this water crisis.
Research and development
Senior journalist Atul Deulgaonkar has written extensively about Maharashtra's agriculture sector. He says our salvation, if there is any, lies in research and development.
He says if we want to truly adapt to climate change, then we ought to concentrate our efforts to developing crimate-resilient crops. He cites the example of South Africa, which grows a particular variety of maize that can withstand dry weather.
He says India's agricultural budget is far too low.
“You can give financial support to the farmers," he remarks. "But the only thing that will help in the long run is scientific support."
The government's import policy of foodgrains needs an overhaul, the veteran journalist adds. He says the decision the Centre took last year -- to import pulses from Mozambique for five years -- is bound to lower the prices in the country.
Farmer leader Jawandiya too argues in favour of upping the antre in agricultural research and restricting imports. He also stresses the need for good crop insurance and says we need to subsidise farming to make the profession not only tenable for this generation, but a valid career choice for the generation that follows it.
Waiver necessary but...
Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma tells Firstpost that while the loan waiver is necessary now, we need to invest in the future. He says the MSP failed to help the farming community. "Because of inadequate infrastructure to procure the harvest, only 6 percent of farmers got MSP," Sharma explains.
Quoting 2016 figures, he says the monthly income of an Indian farmer, on average, is only Rs 1,700. He says that research he conducted with 10 economists shows that to keep food inflation under control, the entire burden of price has been shifted to farmers. He says farmers are helpless and taking their own lives because we, as a society, are denying them their rights.
Sharma says we need a mechanism that will ensure direct income to farmers, be it through government, private entities or intervention pricing. He says solving the irrigation and productivity problems alone won't help, giving the example of Punjab: 98 percent of farmland in the northern state is irrigated and has the highest crop productivity. And yet farmers have been committing suicide in ever-increasing numbers he points out.
"The entire system is designed to entrap farmers," he says. "It's like that story from the Mahabharata. The system is the chakravyuh and the farmers are Abhimanyu."
Bhakti Tambe is a Pune-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2017 09:30 AM