Drought and pests keep Maharashtra farmers on the edge

By Hindustan Times on 17 Feb 2018 | read
  2 065

Image title

Lahu Shingare, a 42-year-old farmer from Kavatha village in Jalna district, 390km from Mumbai, possesses a 10-acre land, which is assumed to be a sizeable holding to lead a respectable life. But, Shingare is living on the edge as uncertainty looms over the future of his family.

He has a debt of Rs6.20 lakh, including a crop loan of Rs90,000, and with little chances of recovering the money spent on his farms, where he grows cotton, Shingare is staring at another year of loss—he is one of the millions of farmers in Marathwada region where majority of farming is rain-fed and in most cases, the income is based on a single crop.

Three droughts in four years between 2012 and 2016, followed by an attack by the pink bollworm pest on cotton crop, have crippled the farmers in almost all the districts of Marathwada region.

Shingare had borrowed Rs5 lakh against his land, which he may lose if he fails to repay the loan. Even his application for loan waiver has not been approved yet owing to a mismatch between the information submitted by him and the details with the bank.

Shingare, along with his family members, now spends his days in the field, picking the inferior quality cotton with the hope of recovering at least the production cost, by selling it at a low price.

“Based on previous experiences, I was expecting at least 150 quintals, which could have fetched me at least Rs7.50 lakh. But the pest attack reduced the production to only 30 quintals, making it difficult to even recover the production cost,” said Shingare. “The bolls are so damaged and hardened that labourers demand extra money for picking. The remaining crop is so infested that its market cost is even less than the labour expenditure for picking and transportation.”

Shingare is not the only farmer to face this desperate situation. As Hindustan Times visited villages of Jalna, Parbhani, Beed and Aurangabad districts of Marathwada region, the stories of despair among the farmers were one worse than another.

Caught off-guard by the sudden pest attack on their crops, farmers are blaming the state administration for not alerting them about it when there were initial signs.

They were totally unaware about the attack of the pest until the first batch of cotton was transported to the ginning mills, after the first picking in September-October last year. Although many of them were complaining about skin-itching after coming in contact with the infested cotton, they realised about the pests only after the crop reached the mills for ginning.

“Ginning mills started rejecting the cotton with the fear of infesting the entire stock. The panic-stricken farmers sprayed insecticides beyond the prescribed quantity. It backfired as there were deaths owing to farmers inhaling the poisonous insecticides. The farmers did not follow the norms of spraying insecticides,” said a scientist, with a leading seed company in Jalna.

Raghunath Golde, a farmer from Ravegaon in Jalna, said that in the absence of research, the government machinery failed to issue appropriate advisory to the farmers who were exploited by the traders.

“Whatever primary information we received was through social media. Panicked farmers sprayed insecticides six to eight times with the hope of killing the pests. The insecticides advised by the shopkeepers were used. They were sold at very high prices, and at times, used for sturdy crop like sugarcane. This did not help in killing the pests, but resulted in drop in the production,” he said.

Golde said the farmers ended up spending around Rs2000 an acre on insecticides against the actual need of Rs200. His production on a 2.5-acre farm dropped to just three quintals from 36 quintals in 2013-14. “I had sold the cotton for Rs8,000 a quintal in 2013-14, and now I am struggling to get even Rs3,000 a quintal,” he said.

Several farmers HT spoke to said they had given up hopes of any income from cotton this year. Usually, they go for five to six pickings of the crop at the interval of a month, but this time, they had to give up the crop after three pickings owing to the infested produce.

Desperate situation

The crop loss owing to the pest attack, followed by unseasonal rains and hailstorm, has crushed farmers in the rural areas of Maharashtra. With most farming being rain-fed, farmers have no other option to fall back upon. Had there been options available, Subhash Kale, a 55-year-old farmer from Ashti village in Beed, would have been still alive.

Subhash, survived by wife, five daughters and a son, went alone to his field with a bottle of pesticide and drank it all on February 6. He was declared dead before reaching the district hospital at Ahmednagar.

“Shortly after he learnt that his name was not on the list of beneficiaries of the loan waiver, he killed himself. With his three-acre dry land, it had become difficult to pay the outstanding of loan of Rs2.25 lakh. Part of the loan was for the weddings of his four daughters. We are really worried about his two school-going children,” said Dilip Kale, Subhash’s younger brother.

Abraham Pakhare, a farmer from Ravegaon village (Jalna), who suffered heavy losses owing to the pest attack, bitterly remarked that the government should now allow them to cultivate marijuana. “I know it is illegal, but we are left with no other option in the backdrop of the failed crops in consecutive years. I have even expressed my opinion in anger during a meeting with the government officials and local MLA,” he said.

Most of the land in Marathwada is dry land, with unequal distribution of water from irrigation projects. Rise in the prices of seeds and labour costs have been other factors that have reduced the gap between the production and selling cost of the farm produce. Many farmers have questioned why action has not been taken against traders for purchasing produce below the minimum support price announced by the government. The pest attack has only compounded the problem.

Local authorities say they had recommended compensation to the farmers and are awaiting the state government’s decision.

Purushottam Bhapkar, divisional commissioner, Aurangabad said: “We have sent the proposals for the compensation to the farmers hit by the pink bollworm. The final decision has to be taken by the government.”

Ganesh Warangule, a 25-year old graduate, has vowed not to depend on agriculture for a living, although he holds five acres of ancestral land. “I would prefer to go for job instead of continuing farming. I am preparing for the state public services exams. We found it difficult even to cover the production cost of cotton sown on 1.5 acres, as the production was just seven quintals, which fetched us Rs28,000 as against the production cost of Rs30,000,” he said.

Now, with the farmers in desperate situation and authorities are not doing enough to resolve the situation, experts fear a fresh round of suicides in the region.

Farm experts say the quantum of the borrowings from private money lenders and others, including relatives, has risen in past two years as farmers were thrown out of the institutionalised system during the drought years. The loans at higher interest rate multiply their dues rapidly and the loans from relatives hurt their dignity, said experts.

“Don’t be surprised if the suicides rise at least four times in coming days,” said Laxman Wadle, a farm expert from Jalna. “I have closely interacted with at least 1,000 farmers in past few years and understood their plight. I can easily tell you that farmers with daughters of marriageable age are in the most vulnerable position. Most of them have been postponing marriages for the past three to four years with the hope of good crop this year. The natural calamities have poured cold water on their hopes.”

Wadle added that since they were not eligible for the fresh farm loans last year in the face of outstanding loans and the mess with the loan waiver announced by the government, the farmers had to borrow from private money lenders at much higher rate. “The pest attack and hailstorm this week has left them in no position of repaying the loans,” he said.