The cotton farmers nightmare

Bitter Harvest – 1


For weeks, Lakshman Gadwe (65) watched helplessly as his cotton crop was ravaged by pests. He could not afford to buy pesticides to salvage his crop. When he finally bought a bottle of the potent chemical, he did not use it to save his crop. He swallowed it and took his life.

After spending almost Rs 70,000 on his land holding of 28 acres his returns were less than Rs 30,000. His crop yield was 20 per cent of the normal crop. “Since the cooperative bank loan did not cover the costs, he had borrowed from money lenders and relatives. To repay the debts, he forced to sell the land that he worked so hard to buy,” says his son Prakash, a resident of Januna in Nandgaon taluka of Amravati district.

With a massive crop loss in the last year, 82 suicides by farmers were reported in the state. Sixty of these were in the Vidarbha region, where more than half the crop was ravaged by unseasonal rains and hail during the harvest season. Attributing most of the deaths to extraneous factors like “family problems”, the state government has given monetary compensation to only 10 of the victims’ families.

While the state government nitpicks over doling out compensation, defects underlying the agricultural economy, which push farmers to the edge, say observers. By attributing the crisis to a ‘natural calamity’, the government has conveniently shrugged off responsibility for its failure to tackle the real problems – meagre bank credit, reliance on moneylenders, faulty agricultural practices and exploitation by traders.

Marginal support from the mainstream banking sector has led to an overweaning dependence on money lenders. According to estimates of the Vidarbha Shekari Janandolan Samiti, banks lend only 10 per cent of Vidarbha’s credit requirements. “Banks favour big farmers. Others are forced to rely on the money lenders, who charge interest ranging from 60 to 120 per cent per year. In addition, some people have to mortgage their land or house,” says Dilip Ikhad, a marginal farmer from Anjangaon Bari in Amravati district.

According to farmers, the amount disbursed by the ban does not even cover half the cost of agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilisers and labour. “this has resulted in unscientific agricultural practices,” says B.T. Talhande, joint director of agriculture, Amravati.

Unsustainable agriculture has made the crop more vulnerable to natural calamities like pest attacks and climatic variations. “During the beginning of the monsonn when the rains are essential for germination, the rainfall was scanty. Then, during the harvesting season for jowar, unseasonal rain destroyed the crop. Due to the humidity, the pests multiplied, destroying the cotton crop,” Mr Talhande explains.
The government provides farmers with little buffer from such calamities. The crop insurance scheme, designed to compensate farmers in the event of crop loss has failed. This, in a region which relies almost entirely on the monsoons. Only 10 per cent of the land here is under irrigation, as compared to the national figure of 34 per cent.

The crop insurance scheme covers only the small sections that gets bank credit. Narrowing its reach even further is the fact that only four crops – jowar, tur, soyabean and groundnut – are insured. Cotton, the main cash crop here, is not included. Moreover, bank officials point out that the state government’s method of assessing crop loss is totally skewed. Instead of assessing crop loss at the village level, inquiries are made at the taluka office about the general productivity. Despite widespread damage in the last season, the state government has not yet disbursed insurance claims.

Profitability has been further lowered by the exploitative pricing. A sharp increase in input prices has made it almost impossible for farmers to make ends meet. “while the costs of inputs like seeds and fertiliser have been soaring every year, the market prices, controlled by the traders cartel, have more or less remained constant. Is it too much to ask for a fair price for our produce?” asks N.B. Gavalkar, a farmer from Dahegaon in Wardha district.

The state government’s monopoly cotton procurement scheme was designed ot guarantee cotton growers a fair price for their produce. Yet, many marginal farmers sell their cotton to traders at prices lower than the cotton federation. “It costs more to transport the cotton to the federation. There, you have to wait in queue for days. Besides, we have to pay off our loans quickly. Cheques from the federation take weeks to arrive,” says Dilip Ikhad.

Falling yields have also reduced profit margins. “Yields have declined owing to monoculture and soil imbalance. People have been using only urea, which is the cheapest fertiliser. As a result, there is less of potash and phosphorus in the soil. Grwoing pest resistance has also resulted in an overuse of pesticides. Biofertilisers and multiple cropping must be introduced,” says Yavatmal district collector Rajeev Jalota.

The unregulated introduction of new technologies has thrown up its own set of problems. “after the green revolution, farmers have started using hybrid seeds in the quest for greater yields. These are more expensive and require more inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation. They are also more vulnerable to pest attacks. It’s a vicious cycle where you shell out more in the hope that you will get more,” points out Suryapal Chavan, from the Kisan Sabha in Nandgaon.

The monsoon does not promise to wash away these problems. The tragedy of Gadwe and score like him shows that agriculture requires more than just rain.

1 July 1998, The Times of India, Mumbai

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