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For Punjab’s farmers, fortune always seems to smile on the other side. Last year, it was the whitefly sucking pest that ravaged their cotton crop. This time round, it’s the brown plant hopper (BPH) that has caused significant yield and price realisation losses for paddy grown in large swathes of the state. And there couldn’t have been a worse time for the BPH (kala tela, in local parlance) to strike — barely a week or ten days before a bumper crop was ready for harvesting.
In 2015, an estimated 1.36 lakh hectares (lh) out of the total 4.36 lh area sown to cotton in Punjab had suffered whitefly infestation. It led to farmers planting a mere 2.56 lh under the fibre crop this year. And ironically, the ones who did plant are celebrating today, as not only have there been no whitefly pest attacks, but even realisations are pretty good. Farmers have sold kapas (raw un-ginned cotton) of various Bt hybrids at Rs 4,800-5,300 per quintal this season, compared to last year’s Rs 3,900-4,700 rate range.
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Baldev Singh, a farmer from Panniwala Mahla village of Abohar tehsil in Fazilka district, regrets having drastically slashed his cotton area from 32 acres to 3 acres this year. “I did it after my crop in 8 acres was totally destroyed by whitefly. How on earth would I have known that there will be no pest attacks or prices are going to be better this time?” he points out. Harpreet Singh from Lakhmirwala in Mansa district’s Budhlada tehsil, on the other hand, is elated. He did not reduce his 15 acres area planted to cotton. His yields have also been 8 quintals/acre, as against last year’s average of 5 quintals.
State officials have been quick to take credit for no whitefly devastation this year. “We maintained close and constant vigil through 500 scouts and 50 field supervisors, who were appointed for the first time. Thanks to their regular alerts, we could save the crop in all the eight cotton-growing districts (Ferozepur, Fazilka, Faridkot, Muktsar, Moga, Barnala, Bathinda and Mansa) through timely pesticide sprays. This was even after whitefly incidence was detected initially in about 12,000 acres in Khuian Sarwar and Abohar blocks of Fazilka,” informs Jasbir Singh Bains, director of agriculture, Punjab government.
No such “close and constant vigil” from the entire official machinery was, however, observed for in paddy. Farmers in Punjab expanded the area under paddy this year to 30.10 lh, from 29.75 lh in 2015. The increase came entirely from ‘parmal’ (non-basmati) varieties; basmati paddy acreage actually witnessed shrinkage from 7.63 lh to 4.96 lh.
But despite this switch to a crop supposedly less prone to pest attacks or price risks, large paddy-growing areas in the state have reported BPH infestation. The farmers have these cases have either suffered lower yields or resorted to premature harvesting in order to limit crop damage. Devinder Singh of Khabe Dogran village in Tarn Taran district was able to harvest only 23-24 quintals of paddy per acre, as against his normal average of 30-32 quintals. Moreover, the kala tela attack forced him to go for early harvesting and sell his grain at Rs 1,350 per quintal, below the government’s minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,510 per quintal. “The arhtiyas (commission agents) in the mandi told me that the MSP is only for paddy with maximum moisture content of 17 per cent, whereas my grain had more than that limit,” he complains.
Amarjit Singh, who has been the sarpanch of Chandke village in Gurdaspur’s Batala teshil for the last 30 years, alleges that state procurement agencies have colluded with arhtiyas and rice millers/shellers to use high moisture content as a pretext to “loot farmers” this time. “I was paid between Rs 1,430 and Rs 1,450 per quintal. They imposed a cut of Rs 60-80 against the MSP in the name of moisture content,” adds this farmer whose extended family owns 100 acres, of which he alone cultivates 40 acres.
In many parts of Punjab, farmers are said to be delivering paddy with moisture content going up to 22 per cent. Every one percentage point increase beyond the permitted 17 per cent moisture limit attracts a value cut of Rs 20/quintal. “Not more than 15 per cent farmers have received the full MSP of Rs 1,510 per quintal this year. 85 per cent would have had to face a minimum cut of Rs 20/quintal. The government should have granted a one-time moisture limit relaxation of 21 per cent, keeping in view the totally unanticipated BPH attack at the fag end of the season,” states Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, chairman, Punjab Mandi Board Most farmers The Indian Express spoke to agreed that procurement operations this time have been smooth overall. “The government is aware that Assembly elections are due early next year and has ensured prompt lifting of our paddy in mandis. But they should have also kept strict vigil on the arhtiyas, sheller owners and government inspectors, who have taken advantage of kala tela to imposed arbitrary value cuts and deny farmers the MSP,” asserts Himmat Singh of Kishangarh village in Jalandhar, who sold his 250 quintals of paddy at Rs 1,300/quintal “when I should have got at least Rs 1,400”.
Jagmohan Singh Dakaunda, general secretary of a Bhartiya Kisan Union faction he himself heads, believes that the Punjab government should have taken up the issue of moisture relaxation with the Centre. “Farmers are not at fault here. The high moisture content is only a result of their being forced to harvest a bit early. Haryana farmers, too, have experienced the same problem from kala tela this time, but the government there has made sure that their entire crop is purchased with a value cut not exceeding Rs 10-20/quintal,” he claims.
According to Gurdev Singh Deol, former head of the Punjab Agricultural University’s department of entomology and now a consultant with the Tata Trust, high humidity levels during grain-filling stage are the most conducive to BPH pest infestation. “They attack the stem of the paddy plants and suck the juice from it, which affects grain formation as well. A good spell of rains during September about 2-3 weeks before harvesting is helpful in clearing the pest. This time, we have unfortunately had high humidity, but very little rains in September,” he notes.
While kala tela has been a frequent visitor in the past decade, Bains admits that its incidence this year has been the highest since 2011-12. When farmers began to notice the sudden build-up, they panicked and prematurely harvested their crop even with high moisture content. In fact, both mandi arrivals of paddy as well as procurement by government agencies have so far been higher relative to last year’s corresponding levels. It is a different matter, though, that bulk of this grain would have fetched farmers less than the official MSP. To what extent they would attach the blame for that on the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance remains to be seen.