BY THE summer of 2015, when the new state government was about six months old, the refrain in rural Maharashtra was that voters might have miscalculated terribly in being swept up by the Modi wave. Led by the BJP, a mostly urban party, the government appeared to be at a loss on how to stem the rising rural discontent.
Now, two years into its tenure, the government finds that succeessive drought years have left the state with a negative growth in agriculture for three years on the trot. But with the rain gods having finally offered respite this year, September-end sowing data showed that a recovery could well be under way in the fields — the state government has recorded a 11 per cent increase in area under cultivation, storage levels in the big reservoirs augurs a likely good Rabi season too.
“The biggest challenge for this government in this sector was handling drought, and hardly any relief or compensation was paid to farmers and agricultural labourers,” said Dr Ashok Dhawale, national joint secretary of the left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha. In fact, as the rural economy worsened owing to drought, the state persisted with time-worn relief strategies, spending more and more on fodder camps and water tankers. In 2014-15, the state sought a Central assistance of Rs 6,013.28 crore — it received Rs 1,962.99 crore. It then sought Rs 4,002.82 crore in 2015-16 and received Rs 3,049.36 crore.
In worst-hit Marathwada, from subsidised foodgrain to free fodder camps for animals, state relief measures were central to farmers’ lives during the summer months, but the impact of the distress on various aspects of rural life continued to deepen.
“Additionally, the bankruptcy of the government’s policies is seen in its inability to offer a right price for farm produce. This year, to give you one example, soyabean and moong prices are half of last year’s prices — the peasantry has more crop this year but still, less money,” said Dr Dhawale, adding that issues such as the connection between rising malnutrition-related infant deaths to agrarian distress had not even been touched upon.
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In fact, farm prices have been a recurring ground for criticism of the state’s agriculture policies, across commodities.
Due to the low price of sugar, mills ran into trouble last year with many failing to clear payments to growers — a first for the sector. Together, the state and the Central governments had cleared Rs 1,200 crore as excise and soft loans for the sector to help them pay the growers. Millers on their part had wanted the above amount as a grant, which the government refused. They have to start repayment of the loans from this season. Non- payment of the fair and remunerative price (FRP) to growers also led to action against 34 mills in the last two years — the highest ever recorded in the state. While millers accelerated the payments, the crushing season of 2016-17 kicks off alongside unpaid dues of Rs 123 crore. This, despite the presence of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana — representative of thousands of cane growers — in the state government.
Millers concede that this has sent out a strong message to the powerful sugar barons — no more largesse and bailouts to the sector, something it had been accustomed to. “One of the promises on which this government was elected was a fair price for farm produce, and the government has committed a breach of faith of farmers,” said Raghunathdada Patil, senior farmer leader who contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on an AAP ticket. “Worse, multiple laws this government passed have been anti-farmer. The beef ban law, for example, has led to interference of the state even on a farmer’s pashudhan (livestock). And then, whether it’s a bullet train or smart cities or other land acquisition, it’s the farmers who are at a loss.”
The state has also not been able to reverse the low coverage of agriculture insurance in Maharashtra. In 2014-15, Maharashtra had 22 per cent of gross cropped area insured, not even half the percentage scored by Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. On the positive side, there is now an “agriculture policy” of the state government, with the mission-mode objectives clearly stated — to achieve 4 per cent growth rate in agriculture and allied sectors, to promote entrepreneurship in agriculture and allied sectors, to increase net farm returns, crop diversification, etc.
Also on the positive side, during 2014-15, Maharashtra stood first in terms of fruit production with a 12.22 per cent share in total national production, despite low productivity.
In a huge reform, the state has also launched farmer-to-consumer markets alongside taking forward the APMC reforms for more barrier-free markets.
Some of these moves are seen as political. The market committees, for instance, have been strongholds of the NCP and the Congress. The government has now taken to appointing expert directors on these bodies. Former NCP MLA and president of the federation of APMCs Dilip Mohite Patil called this an attempt by the Sena-BJP to gain a backdoor entry to these bodies.
Another innovative reform is a pilot project of 10,000 solar pumps for agriculture, offering round-the-year power, a reduced demand-supply gap and a lower subsidy burden to the state electricity board. The policy also makes mention of infusing public investment in agriculture, to boost growth and build capacity, about furthering agricultural research and, critically, the revival of district cooperative banks. Much of this, however, will only begin once the government is well into its third year.