Sunday, 11 December 2011

Packaged politics once again on farm issues-TIMES OF INDIA


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Packaged politics once again on farm issues

NAGPUR: It's the golden jubilee of the winter session of the state legislature this year. And far from any celebratory mood, it's the grave agricultural crisis facing the state that would overshadow the proceedings of the ten-day session.

The entire opposition is geared up to get a better deal for cotton, soyabean and paddy - the three main crops of Vidarbha - which have once again let down farmers of the region. But then we can expect the rhetoric of the opposition to be matched by dramatics of the government. More so as chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has indicated that relief package would be announced during the forthcoming session.

So, another package is on the cards. At the end of the day, or rather session, it would boil down to politics of the package. While the opposition may reject the package as meagre, the government would hope that what it is doling out would be enough to limit the political damage in the zilla parishad and gram panchayat elections that are to follow after the December 11 municipal council polls in the state.

However, the moot question is what purpose these annual packages serve. In the last five years many such packages - loan waivers, compensation for damaged crops, subsidies for farm ponds - have come the farmers' way in Vidarbha. All these measures have not made an iota of a difference in the life of the region's farmers. The only thing certain in Vidarbha's farms is the harvest of suicides.

Time has come for the state as well as the Union government to come out with a permanent solution for dryland farmers whose life hinges on vagaries of nature. Over 5 million families in the state solely depend on cotton as a cash crop.

The area under cotton cultivation now exceeds 40 lakh hectares, nearly 44% of total cotton growing area of the country. New areas in Marathwada and even western Maharashtra are taking to cotton only to find that in dryland areas yields are too low to break even. Recurring losses mean piling up of debt burden forcing farmers to commit suicide.

Unless some special fund is set up to subsidize dryland farmers, the crisis may only worsen. For instance, leave alone MSP and the price of around Rs4,000 a quintal even in the open market, the cotton grower would be able to recover only half the money he invested this year. The government has to intervene and help farmer tide over this crisis. But short term measures would not do.

Labour rates, fertilizers, insecticides and seeds all have become costly. On the other hand, the open market price of cotton which was around Rs6,000 last year, has fallen below Rs4,000 a quintal this year. The condition of soya farmer is even worse. Rains at the wrong time have brought yield to less than half the normal. Paddy growing has also become economically unviable.

At the root of this crisis is the poor irrigation facility that substantially reduced the yield. In Maharashtra, the surface irrigation through dams caters to only 2-3% of land while other means like farm wells and ponds cover 10-12% of the land under cultivation. The rest depends on monsoon. The CACP at the Centre fixes MSP on average input costs of all states, placing Vidarbha in the same place as high-yielding Punjab (with 99% irrigation) and Gujarat (45% irrigation). There is no consideration for dryland situation. This is seen as an injustice by farmers of regions like Vidarbha. Cotton is grown in 40 lakh hectares and gets less political attention. Sugarcane grown in barely 7 lakh hectares in influential western Maharashtra gets all the goodies. This disparity should end if Vidarbha farmer is to survive.

RAISING THE BAR

Scientific guidance

Nagpur has a number of institutes in agriculture - in cotton, citrus, soil - yet the farmers' actual benefit is very little from their research due to the absence of a proper extension system. They need proper scientific guidance on types of crops to be grown in region with cultivation practices.

Shift in crop pattern


There is a strong need for shift in crop pattern based on soil conditions and water availability. National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning (NBBS&LUP) has prepared maps for different agro-climatic zones for sustainable agriculture, but the agriculture department and other implementing agencies have never taken them to farmers.

Region-specific MSP


According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), the cost of production of cotton in Vidarbha and Maharashtra ranges from Rs26,000-34,000 per ha for rain-fed conditions and Rs45,000-50,000 per ha for irrigated conditions. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices which fixes the blanket minimum support price (MSP) nationally for different crops does not take into account the productivity levels which are very low in Vidarbha. MSP should therefore be region-specific.

Special farm zones


Special farm zones should be set up in the state to demarcate crops for them by the agriculture universities and government research institutes.

Faulty crop insurance policy

Crop insurance policy for orange announced recently is very faulty and has been framed without considering the recommendations made by the National Research Centre for Citrus. Generally, 70% farmers take 'mrig bahar' crop and 30% 'ambia bahar'. But the insurance policy has taken into consideration only 'ambia bahar' crop.

Cumbersome loan procedure


Nationalized banks have such a cumbersome and bureaucratic procedure for crop loan that maximum farmers never get loans from them.

Losses due to power cuts

Farmers suffer huge losses for no fault of theirs due to load-shedding. The government should either compensate them for it or ensure regular electric supply.

Major crops damaged

This year, all major crops like soyabean (in flowering stage), cotton (boll formation) and paddy (transplantation stage) were damaged severely particularly due to heavy rains at wrong time. Farmers need compensation for each of these crops and also the right MSP. The forthcoming 'mrig bahar' crop (70% farmers depend on it) which fruits from February to April is going to be very bad due to effect in flowering and fruiting. Orange needs at least 150mm rain in July but this year it rained only 70mm in the month but there were heavy rains in later months.

With farmers' economic distress and, consequently, their suicides refusing to abate, Vidarbha's agriculture scene has emerged as something of a national challenge. Despite the issue getting attention from highest level, no effective solution has been found. There have been packages and relief measures but they all ended up being mired in red tape or corruption allegations. Given the stubborn nature of the problem, it really needs some out of the box thinking. The approach should be to wean farmers away from government subsidies by devising market mechanisms that ensure fair return on their produce. When food prices are rising for consumers, farmers not getting higher returns does not stand to reason. Obviously something is gravely wrong. Government interventions so far have gone the wrong way. Could it be time to try a more hands off approach and let the prices be decided by producers and consumers?

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