The new year has caught Vidarbha's cotton farmers in crisis. The Maharashtra State Cotton Growers Marketing Federation has trapped both farmers and itself in a vicious cycle. Last year also saw the state elections with the Congress and BJP led fronts in keen contest. The Sushilkumar Shinde government also made offers of free electricity and interest waivers to the state's farmers. But none of this ended up really resolving the cotton growers problems as they entered 2005.
Elections, problem solving and misplaced policies
Just before the 2004 elections in Maharashtra, Sena Chief Bal Thackeray pleaded with the farmers not to commit suicide, but bring about a parivartan of power. That came a cropper. Much though Thackeray would like to forget, the suicides were first reported in the cotton-rich belt of Vidarbha when Sena-BJP was in power in the state seven years ago. A few cheques given in aid to the farmers had bounced then.
On August 4, 2004, in a run up to the elections, the then CM Sushilkumar Shinde announced relief measures supposedly for the farmers -- a free electric power largesse. Ironically, none of those who ended their lives consider even the small number that the government machinery says are genuine suicide cases had electric pumps or irrigation. Not a single one.
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In fact, the day the government announced the free power sop, three peasants ended their lives in just one tehsil of Yavatmal, while two others consumed pesticides to end themselves in Amravati district. The death toll had touched 44 in Yavatmal alone. And together, across Vidarbha, the toll crossed the 70-figure-mark since the agriculture season began in the first week of June 2004.
Loan interest waivers
Before the elections, the state government also announced a waiver of interest. But again, this would benefit less than ten per cent farmers, who had borrowed from the nationalized banks. And those farmers were not the ones in distress or debt-trap. That measure too did not help those in distress.
Those ending lives are also not battered by the nationalized or cooperative bank loans, but the private usurers. A large number of farmers in this belt have defaulted on repayment of bank loans long back. Today, farmers are under huge debts of the private usurers, some of whom, as my visits to Yavatmal yielded, enjoy proximity to the powers-that-be. Some are traders who are also in processing industries like ginning and pressing.
Irrigation and cash crops
For many farmers, a shift from food crops like jowar to cash crops was suicidal. In comparison with jowar, cotton crops require much more fertilisers and chemical inputs, necessiating higher cash requirements. And many did not get credit at the start of this agriculture season.
Irrigation is another factor. While cotton's water requirements are less compared to jowar, timing is crucial. For good yield, the first few rains in July and August are absolutely essential. For its part, the government has failed on the irrigation front for years. Big dams the Upper Wardha dam on Wardha river and the Gosekhurd dam on the Wainganga -- are under construction for two decades, but irrigation has not improved. In fact, some of the farmers who ended their lives this year are from the command area of two medium irrigation projects in Yavatmal. The irrigation department could not release the water for agriculture when the farmers needed it most.
Even so, some of the farmers who ended lives the past year were from the better-irrigated paddy-belts of Bhandara and Chandrapur districts. It was the seventh or eighth year of suicides. Again, the regions where farmers ended themselves in distress were not always in drought.
Farmers distress is always linked to drought, but the fact is that more complex matters have been at work. (See: Cotton marketing fails Vidarbha's farmers.)
Post-elections, the government has reneged on its promise of raising the guaranteed procurement price of cotton to Rs 2700 per quintal (1 quintal = 100 kg). The Democratic Front had made this promise in its pre-election manifesto. The free power sop may be discontinued, the government says. As for the announcement of drought and relief measures, the surveys have just begun. And as always, they are being conducted in the villages neither drought-prone nor crisis-ridden.
Farmers were bullied by private seed-retailers and a mafia of private usurers. They have lost out also because of the unregulated sale of spurious seeds. Most of those who ended themselves did so because they could not sustain their families basic needs from agriculture, their only sources of income here. They saw mounting debts, crop failure, and seemingly unending penury. Some of them were big 35-acre farmers, who suffered significant losses in the past few years.
Wrongheaded policies, the mess in the monopoly cotton procurement scheme and unregulated usury has driven farmers to a state of desperation. But neither the state government nor the opposition parties seem interested in helping farmers with a way out.