Yavatmal, Wardha, December: “It’s a bumper year, yes,” notes Mohan Mamidwar, a farmer and political activist in the cotton town of Pandharkawda in Yavatmal, “but a year of bumper losses.”

“Don’t ask us what’s the crop scene this time, it opens up our wounds,” says the 50-year-old, who has been farming diligently for two decades, but 2008, he says, would be remembered as a year of disaster: crops have failed; the winter farming season is set to be doomed; bank loans have dried down; inflation has wrought havoc in villages; farm wages are on the rise; and intensive use of chemicals and genetically modified (GM) seeds coupled with adverse agro-climatic conditions have belted soil health across the region irreparably. “People are waiting to die.”

Talks of death (read suicide) are not new to the cotton bowl of the country; but the ease at which farmers are speaking about it this time in the year is disturbing.

“It’s the worst ever drought,” says Nitin Khadse, a young farmer in Jalka. Delayed rains failed the first two sowings at the onset of kharif, which meant a loss of Rs 2000 per acre. Now the entire crop is done in by a combination of reasons: erratic rainfall, substandard seeds, and micronutrient deficiency in soil, among others. If this wasn’t enough, the global gloom has engineered cotton-soybean price crash.

As winter chill sets in, Vidarbha farmers are beginning to feel the heat of massive income losses, besotted as they are by worries over the hungry months ahead.

“It’s the worst crop year I’ve ever seen,” notes farmers’ leader Vijay Jawandhia. If the government doesn’t come to the rescue, farmers are staring at bumper losses.

Sample this: while farmers reaped an average soybean yield of seven to eight quintals in rain-fed conditions last year, the yields have shrunk to two this year. Cotton is no different. Village unto villages have devastated cotton crop, with the specter of drought and distress written all over the faces of harangued farmers.

Despite the loan waiver sop, situation across Vidarbha doesn’t look promising. Jawandhia estimates a loss of at least Rs.8000 per acre, which, for the entire Vidarbha, translates into a huge figure, given that the total land holding is little over 35-lakh-ha. “The loss means money circulation will be less in rural areas.”

“I got 25 quintals of soybean last year; it’s down to six this time around,” cries a distraught Khadse, who cultivates five-acre of land in rain-fed conditions. “Last year, traders paid Rs.2000 a quintal for soybean; it’s down to Rs 1300 today.”

Government estimates suggest both cotton and soybean yields have plummeted by over 50 per cent in several blocks. There won’t be second picking of cotton in a majority of villages, says Jawandhia. Quality too has taken a beating this year.

“In Vidarbha, long dry spells made an adverse impact on the crop and delayed sowing up to second week of August. Pest infestation too mars the prospect of soybean with lower productivity and quality,” says a study done by the Indore-based Soybean Processors Association of India (SOPA) earlier this year.

The crop and income loss is aggravated by uniform rise in wages of labourers, consequent upon the announcement of sixth pay commission implementation. “Wages have surged phenomenally this year; cotton picking, for instance, is now costlier. Last year, while labourers charged Rs.2 per quintal, this year they are demanding Rs.3-4 per quintal, and in view of labour shortage, we’ve to shell out the money despite losses,” explains Mamidwar. “More is yet to come,” he says.

The dwindling crop coupled with farmers’ reluctance to sell the produce at lower price could also be gauged from the poor turnout at the procurement centres.

Till November end, all the agencies put together and private traders could only buy a little over 22 lakh quintals of cotton. By the same time last year, the figure had crossed a hundred lakh quintals. The Maharashra State Cooperative Cotton Growers’ Marketing Federation, the state-run agency, has procured only 3.5 lakh quintals; the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has bought 11.18 lakh quintals, while the private traders have bought remaining cotton, official data shows.

Dark signs

Loan repayments a big problem with crop failure

Fresh credit in jeopardy next year, with banks in liquidity crunch

Crop losses to affect land lease deals big time

Nutritional deficiencies in soil a major concern

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Though the government agencies are paying the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs.2850-Rs.3050 to growers, the rush towards private traders is more despite the fact that they are not paying the MSP for the obvious reason.

“The state-run agencies deduct the bank loan installment from the payments, which is the reason why farmers are turning their back to the federation centres,” explains Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). The farmers need cash. “This year, the losses are phenomenal, and no farmers is in a position to repay loans.” This, in a year of biggest loan waiver sop, sounds bad for the rural economy, he adds.

Next year, land lease deals would be hit. No one is ready to talk about hike in lease rates for next year; they want to review the rates downward. Sudhir, a taxi driver in Nagpur, leases his agriculture land every year to an old acquaintance in his native village of Kutki in Wardha district. “The farmer, who tills my land, has not been able to recover his input costs; and banks loans are yet to be paid. I won’t ask for my money when he cultivates land next year,” he says.