Crop crisis: Over 30,000 farmers to protest outside Maharashtra Assembly

All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS) march from Nashik to Mumbai to gherao Vidhan Bhawan | Photo: PTI
More than 30,000 farmers from all over Maharashtra, on a ‘long march’ sicnce March 5 from Nashik, an agricultural powerhouse 170 km north of Mumbai, will reach the state’s legislative Assembly on Monday.


Leaders in the protest rally allege their demands for clearing farmers’ balance sheets, ensuring remunerative prices for crops, and implementing the Forest Rights Act for the benefit of scheduled tribes have not been done entirely. An 8 per cent contraction in agriculture (worse, the crop sub-sector contracted 14 per cent), according to the latest economic survey by the state, worsens the situation.


The western state received 84 per cent of the average rainfall during the June to October period in the 2017 season, with regional variations. The deficit in the drought-prone Vidarbha region was above 20 per cent. On top of that, increased pest attacks affected standing cotton crops, according to the economic survey. The state witnessed record foodgrain and cotton production in 2016-17, registering 22 per cent growth in the agriculture sector, followed by a contraction in the current year.


The pattern resembles the one in 2013-14 and 2014-15, when agriculture sector growth of 12.3 per cent was followed by a contraction of 10.7 per cent in the latter year.


The central government's resolution on doubling farmers' incomes requires 10 per cent consistent growth in the agriculture sector of major agrarian states, according to its own report. In addition, leaders of the rally allege, lending to the farm sector (both kharif and rabi) in the state has gone down from Rs 430 billion in 2016-17 to Rs 220 billion in 2017-18.


Source: Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017-18

“Banks refrained from giving loans to farmers this season due to poor implementation of the loan waiver scheme. As a result, farmers had little money to sow and cultivate,” Raju Shetti, Member of Parliament and a farmer leader from southern Maharashtra, who opted out of the National Democratic Alliance in the middle of its term, told Business Standard.


Of the Rs 340-billion loan waiver package announced by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in June 2017, only Rs 138 billion was disbursed till March 6, 2017, according to the Budget. The scheme, known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Shetkari Sanman Yojana, has reached 3.6 million farmers against the intended 8.9 million.


Minister of state for agriculture Sadabhau Khot did not confirm the numbers but attributed the potential shortfall to political vendetta by opposition parties, which control most cooperative banks in the state.


“Maharashtra’s loan waiver scheme has given the maximum return to the eligible farmer among all states that have waived loans. We have taken utmost care that nationalised banks lend to the farm sector,” Khot told Business Standard.

Source: Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017-18

This year, in addition to a serious rain deficit in Vidarbha, the cotton crop was subject to an unprecedented attack of the pink bollworm.


“The pest attacked irrigated cotton fields more harshly than the rain-fed ones, and the genetically modified crop suffered more damage,” said Prashant Gawande, a farmer leader from Akola district who is participating in the protest march. He said the GM variety had failed in its rationale of protecting the crop from pest attacks. Though the rally reportedly bears flags of the Communist Party of India, many participating farmer leaders said no specific party was leading it.


The state government issued a resolution on February 23 that promised compensation of Rs 13,500 per hectare to a maximum of 2 hectares to only those cotton and paddy farmers who have incurred more than 33 per cent of crop loss. This has irked a majority of the farmers, since the GM variety adds to the cost of cultivation.

Source: Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017-18


The government might increase the scope of compensation, possibly to all farmers, to assuage the growing discontent, according to sources. This is the second major farmer protest in two years.


On the contrary, another set of data does not paint such a gloomy picture. The crop is fetching around Rs 4,500 per quintal in mandis across Maharashtra, above the minimum support price. Arrivals in state mandis from November till date is around 874,000 tonnes, not very less than 969,000 tonnes during 2016-17, the bumper crop year.


While production of cotton and tur (red gram or arhar) has almost halved compared to the previous year, soyabean and paddy have declined 15-20 per cent, according to the economic survey.


Cotton is the most preferred kharif crop in Maharashtra. It was sown on 4.2 million hectares in 2017, almost a third of the total kharif crop area of 15 million hectares across the state.


The state’s economic survey 2017-18 puts cotton production at 6 million bales, down from record 10.8 million bales in 2016-17, and the worst in a decade. The yield of cotton has fallen to 244 kilograms per hectare. However, previous economic surveys put the yield of 2014-15 and 2015-16, the infamous drought years, at 150 kilograms per hectare, and cotton production at below 4 million bales, worse than this year.


The Maharashtra state budget has allocated around Rs 80 billion towards irrigation, and Rs 15 billion to the Jalyukt Shivar (irrigated farmlands) scheme. State Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantivar has proposed 25 per cent assistance to install grain segregator machines at state agriculture markets to separate 'fair average quality' grains from below average ones.


The state’s overall debt situation worsened, with accumulated debt rising from Rs 4 trillion to Rs 4.6 trillion. Salaries and interest payments now account for 57 per cent of the state’s revenue expenditure.

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