Cotton Aflame

The cotton harvest is ready. But the state hasn’t yet opened most procurement centres. At the few that are functioning, farmers have been lining up for days. The frustration has led to violence in Wani.

in Yavatmal

Finally cotton gets weighed at the Shindola procurement centre after farmers waited in queues for several days.Photo: Dionne Bunsha

A fire was still smoldering under the burned papers and broken furniture in a room at Wani’s agricultural market office. The flame was alive, even three days after the fire was put out and police opened fire to disperse angry farmers who ransacked the office.

Here in Vidarbha, Maharashtra’s cotton belt, the flames were fanned much before 8th December 2006, when the police fired on farmers in Wani. The state government started cotton procurement this month, delaying it by two months after the crop was harvested. In several places, procurement centres are yet to open. With their harvest ready for sale, farmers were restless. The queues piled up at the few places that have opened. One of them was Wani.

“There were around 1,500 farmers were waiting in the cold with their bullock carts for four days. The state government’s cotton federation wasn’t buying all the cotton. Graders would clear one cart and by-pass the next four. Finally, farmers got angry with a Cotton Confederation of India (CCI) grader, Shukla, who refused to buy the cotton saying it was moist. They started fighting with him. He ran into our office and locked himself in. The farmers chased him, set fire and destroyed the office,” says Dr Moreshwar Pande, chairman of the Wani agricultural market committee. “Obviously, the farmers were livid. They were just asking for their rights.” Dr Pande’s organization has suffered the most, yet he is sympathetic to those who ransacked his office.

“It was the fault of the CCI and the state cotton federation, but we had to bear the losses,” says Dr Pande, sitting amongst the ruins in the market yard. “In fact, were on the phone with a government official telling him that the procurement situation was bad and that they should enhance facilities when Shukla came running into the office.” The police was called in. Students from a nearby college joined the brawl. It became even more difficult to control. They fired twice to disperse the crowd. The riot spread to the town centre. Curfew was imposed for three days.

Shukla really shook the town…and the state. It’s the first time that police have fired on farmers here, at a time when the agricultural crisis has reached tipping point. There have been 1,200 suicides reported since June 2005. Around 75 per cent of families (12.75 lakh households) in Vidarbha’s six districts are in distress, says a state survey. With around three to five suicides occurring everyday, bullets will not resolve the unrest.

“What happened in Wani can happen again anywhere if the state doesn’t give us a fair price for our cotton, doesn’t grade it correctly and keeps making us wait for days on end,” said U.N. Sur, a farmer who had been waiting for three days at the Shindola procurement centre in Yavatmal with his three bullock carts. After the Wani tension, there has been a temporary reprieve. “They have stopped private traders from operating here, since there is not enough storage space for state purchasing. Within a day, see how fast they are clearing all the bullock carts. Earlier, they were just harassing us.”

Unloading the cotton harvest after waiting for several days at the procurement centrePhoto: Dionne Bunsha
“In this very yard, the private traders began buying cotton in October, but the government only started now,” said Namdev Nimkar, who had been waiting in the Shindola yard for six days. “If they had started sooner, there would not have been such a crowd. But the state doesn’t want to buy cotton. They want to keep us in the clutches of traders.” Currently, the state is procuring cotton at rates ranging from Rs 1,700 to 1,990 per quintal. Traders are buying at around Rs 1,800 to 1,850. When you agree to sell and unload the cart, they lower the price to Rs 1,750, and over that you have to pay them a commission. That’s why we prefer to sell to the government,” said Sur.

Private traders have already bought 44.74 lakh quintals, while the state cotton federation has only procured six lakh quintals. “This is the game the traders are playing. They buy up all the good quality cotton and then leave it to the state to buy the lower quality and suffer the losses,” said Sudhir Goyal, divisional commissioner of Amravati.

“The traders and corporate sector are to blame. They create a psychology of surplus and exhaust farmers till they accept a lower price. Why don’t the textile mills buy directly from farmers? The textile mill lobby is highly organized and makes sure they get cotton dirt cheap.” A metre of ordinary cheap cotton costs Rs 50, but the farmer gets only Rs 5 of this, he pointed out. “The clothes that we wear are stained by the blood of farmers,” Goyal said.

“In Wani, farmers anger was not directed at us, but at the CCI and private traders. We are unnecessarily being blamed,” said Dr N.P. Hirani, chairman of the Maharashtra State Cotton Federation. “The farmers got angry because CCI does only selective purchasing. On that day in Wani, they purchased only 50 carts while 500 were waiting. It’s not our fault that procurement is low. Farmers prefer to sell to traders and CCI because they get immediate payment while we pay after 15 days. Also, we deduct half their bank loan repayment, while they don’t.” Dr Hirani said that the state could not procure more because of power cuts. “Ginning factories can only work one of three shifts. They are processing the purchases at a quarter of their capacity. There is no place to store the cotton. That’s why we cannot purchase more,” he said.

Maharashtra’s Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme was introduced in 1972 to assure a fair and stable price to cotton farmers and protect them from traders who rigged the market. The state government set up a network of procurement centres to buy cotton directly from farmers and eliminate middlemen. The scheme started making losses after 1995, when the price of cotton collapsed in the world market. The government was buying at a price higher than the market rate. Since then, every government has tried to dismantle the scheme, denying farmers the only protection they had.

At one of the few procurement centres that are functioning. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Procurement prices have been lowered to cut losses. “In 2001, the state government offered upto Rs 2,700 per quintal. Now, it’s less than Rs 2,000. How are farmers supposed to survive when the prices of everything else are rising?” asks Vijay Jawandhia, Shetkari Sanghatana leader.

The Congress-NCP alliance promised a cotton price of Rs 2,700 per quintal before the election. But when it came to power, it lowered the price from Rs 2,250 to Rs 1,750. “What is Sharad Pawar doing as agricultural minister? He is only safeguarding his constituency and the sugar lobby,” said Ganesh Nagure from Mendoli village in Yavatmal.

When the Prime minister toured Vidarbha in July this year, he announced a Rs 3,750-crore ‘package’ for Vidarbh’s 30 lakh farmers in distress, including an interest waiver and an order to banks to issue loans. But the PM glossed over the crux of the farm crisis – price. While the cost of production has risen, prices have fallen. Farmers are finding it difficult to make ends meet and driven deeper into debt. Issuing fresh loans just saved them from the moneylenders this time round. But what happens at the end of the season when the farmer can’t pay back the loan once again? The pressure to pay up drives several farmers to kill themselves, leaving their wives and children to take on the burden.

Dinesh Gogul’s family has been left without a breadwinner for a different reason. He left the village to sell his cotton and returned a dead man, mowed down by police bullets in Wani. His family is still reeling from the shock. “My son is only 12 years, and my in-laws are old. How are we going to survive?” asks Savita, his wife, only 32 and widowed.

The family of Dinesh Gogul, the farmer who was killed in the police firing at Wani. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

When trouble broke out in Wani, Maharashtra’s Home minister R.R. Patil was only three hours away attending the state assembly session in Nagpur. But he didn’t bother to visit the site. Instead, he hosted a dinner party for journalists at his bungalow that night, while the flames in Wani were still being doused. Two days later, he arrived at Savita’s doorstep with a cheque of Rs three lakh.

Dinesh’s son inherits a grim legacy of loss. His generation is likely to witness growing restlessness as deprivation deepens. Wani may be just the beginning. The fire is still quietly smoldering..

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