The same day the Prime Minister told us agriculture would be our top priority, Vidarbha saw the last rites of a farmer shot dead by the police in Wani, Yavatmal. The same week that Opposition parties staged mock funerals for farmers inside the Maharashtra Assembly, real funerals were held for more than 20 farmers who had committed suicide in those seven days. All of them driven to it by debt. Months after the `relief packages,' Vidarbha's crisis has gotten worse.
Large numbers of police had been shifted to Nagpur by December 3. With the session to begin the next day - and a dozen protests planned outside the legislature - the force there was beefed up strongly. Khairlanji, of course, grabbed most of the attention. In the process, the problems simmering at the procurement centres across the cotton belt were sidelined. When things boiled over, as they were sure to, no one could cope.
The tension and clashes at the procurement centres were easy to predict. As reported in this newspaper, "procurement delays could force many farmers to sell in distress to private buyers." ( The Hindu , November 25, 2006.) Being forced into the corner was what sparked off the clash that saw farmer Dinesh Ghugal lose his life. This time three years ago, there were around 300 cotton procurement centres at work. This year that number is 56. The farmers are being pushed towards private traders. And much lower prices.
The official price this season is between Rs.1,700 and Rs.1,900 a quintal. That's where the role of the cotton graders comes in. Farmers - often rightly - see the graders as serving trader interests. By placing their best produce in lower categories. So the price offered in practice falls even lower.
To begin with, the Maharashtra Government brought down an already low cotton price last year by withdrawing the `advance bonus' till then paid to the farmers. That pushed the average price down from Rs.2,250 per quintal to just around Rs.1,700. It was clear then that an already stressed farm community would respond in despair. It was pointed out that the region "could see a huge rise in the already dismal numbers" of farm suicides. Which is what happened. ( The Hindu October 28, 2005)
Even if the price were Rs.2,250, the farmer would be selling at a loss. The State admits that the cost of production is far higher than what the growers are paid for their cotton. An official document puts this clearly. It says "... the MSP fixed is about 20 to 30 per cent lower than the cost of production." The document is titled "Farmers' Suicides in Maharashtra, an Overview."
Farmers ran into much worse at the procurement centres this season. They found they could not get even the stated price of Rs.1,900. That's when trouble broke out. To date, a government that just a month ago announced a "bumper crop" has not procured even four lakh quintals of the 350 lakh quintal harvest it predicted. Farmers see that as a deliberate action. Aimed at pushing them into distress sales at abysmal prices. What's more, it's clear now there is no bumper crop. All that farmers at Wani were demanding was that the Government honour the promise that brought it to power in Maharashtra. A cotton price of Rs.2,700 a quintal. For this they were punished.
It's odd that these actions come from a government that has admitted on record that some 10 million human beings -17.44 lakh farm families - in the region are in distress. Which also states on record that two million people among this lot are in what it terms "maximum distress." Some of the details of mass misery in the six worst hit districts of the region are in that government paper on farm deaths. And also up on its own website. They come from the largest ever survey of its kind conducted by the government of Maharashtra. One that needed the services of close to 10,000 government workers and other staff.
You'd think that findings like these would prompt the state to declare an agrarian emergency. Instead, most of last Saturday went in arresting people voicing that distress. Not even letting journalists know where those detained were being been held till their release hours later.
Meanwhile, the main Opposition has failed to put the government on the mat. Their actions inside the House were based on drama, not debate. Gopinath Munde did articulate two or three major demands of the farmers. But too many of the BJP's MLAs seem to know little and care less about the dynamite the government's own data placed in their hands. So total is the disarray of the Sena-BJP that the Congress still won the by-elections in Vidarbha's Chimur and Daryapur Assembly seats. True, the candidates were both ex-Shiv Sainiks holding on to their personal turf. This time they just won on the Congress platform. But it gives us a glimpse of how badly the Opposition has failed to focus on the region's burning problems.
Both ways, the State-wide debate has ranged mostly from the inane to the insane. One strange idea is that Vidarbha should move from cotton to sugarcane. It's amazing the notion persists even when Maharashtra is drowning in the latter. (Mr. Munde rightly attacked this.) The mills cannot handle all the cane there is. But for massive state support, sugar prices would plummet to Rs.12 a kg. Oddly, this action comes from a government that has withdrawn its intervention in cotton. As critics point out, this suggests cotton exists in the free market. Sugar, outside it. If there's one thing Maharashtra does not need more of, it is sugarcane. If there's one thing Vidarbha needs more of, it is water. Sugarcane could take up to 200 times the water that an acre of jowar does.
Does cotton exist in a free market? The State also admits that giant U.S. subsidies to that country's 20,000 cotton growers is hitting the millions of farmers in this region. Yet the Centre has not seen it fit to raise import duties. Which now stand at just ten per cent. And so India's cotton imports in seven years leading to 2005 were three times what they were in the preceding 25 years.
The U.S. cotton crop last year was worth around $3.9 billion. But that nation's handouts to its growers the same year totalled $4.7 billion. Such subsidies have sunk global prices. As a result, says the State Government's own paper, "imported cotton now sells at Rs.17,000 a bale compared to Rs.19,000 a bale for Indian cotton." It also points out that in 2001-02, "U.S. raw cotton exports to India more than tripled to over one million bales. And the U.S. share of total Indian imports rose from 20 per cent to 60 per cent."
A noble admission by the state. But others making the same point face possible arrest and false charges. Activists are being hauled up for the trouble in Wani. The Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti's leader Kishore Tiwari was among those held for some hours. He was not in Wani at the time of the trouble. In fact, the same man and his group now accused of sparking unrest were weeks ago widely covered in the media for practising non-violent `gandhigiri' at the region's hated banks.
So we now have a State Government that confesses in black and white to the very charges that farmers are making. But which resorts to force against those making the charges.
Both State and Centre, though, stick to a stubborn public stance that things will improve. Once the `relief packages' begin to work, they insist, things will get a lot better. Yet, the State's own paper on farm suicides is candid about their progress. "In spite of the PM's and CM's relief packages," it says, "the numbers of suicides in the six districts continues to be in the range of 100 a month."
The Maharashtra Government's own count for this year is more than 1,250 suicides. In just the six worst-hit districts. It admits to that figure but says more than half of these are `not genuine.' That is they will not get compensation. They were not due to distress. Every officer, though, knows better. They also know this has been the worst year ever. There have been over 450 in just the last four months. The first eight days of December saw 36.
With the death of Ghugal, things will hot up again as the session resumed this week. It appears the State Government could announce some measures aimed at curbing farm turmoil. There could even be some kind of payments to those in distress. But as two `relief packages' have shown, these will not achieve much if they do not also address the basic issues. That is, a fair price for cotton. A loan waiver. Improved credit. Support that helps lower input costs. A boost for food crop. Otherwise, the next session of the Assembly will be discussing the failures rising out of this one.