About two years ago, Guruling Modi took 10 quintals of tur (pigeon-pea), a crop he had grown for the first time on his two-acre holding, to the market yard at Latur. “I got a price of just Rs 4,200 per quintal, despite my produce being of the best quality. After expenses of Rs 35,000 on seeds, fertiliser, labour and other inputs, I was left with a paltry return of Rs 7,000 for the 10 quintals”, recalls this farmer from Bhise Wagholi, a village in Latur taluka of the same district.
Modi had switched from sugarcane to tur in 2013, in the expectation of better returns and also cultivating a crop that consumed less water. Tur is now fetching Rs 8,500-9,000 per quintal at Latur, more than twice what he got two years back. But the bitter experience from that time has made Modi sceptical about cultivating tur: “If the monsoon rains are good in June, I’ll go back to cane, as it at least gives me an assured income. I cannot take a chance this time, after two bad crop years due to drought”.
The farming of water-intensive sugarcane area in Marathwada, a traditionally pulses-growing belt of Maharashtra, has been much-commented, particularly in the current context of drought. Many, including the Magsaysay Award winner and “waterman of India” Rajendra Singh, have singled out sugarcane cultivation as a major cause of Marathwada’s water woes.
The Latur division, comprising the districts of Latur, Osmanabad, Nanded, Parbhani and Hingoli, had 1.37 lakh hectares (lh) area under cane cultivation in 2012-13. This rose to 1.66 lh in 2013-14, before falling to 1.47 lh and 1.26 lh in the following two drought-ravaged years. During these four years, the corresponding acreages under kharif pulses (mainly tur, urad or black gram, and mung or green gram) stood at 6.20 lh, 6.37 lh, 6.17 lh and 5.05 lh respectively.
Although sugarcane covers just about a quarter of the area devoted to pulses in this belt, its consuming roughly four times more water in a low-rainfall area has agitated most environmentalists and economists. Even the present BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra has favoured “weaning away” farmers from cane and encouraging them to grow more pulses.
But all this well-meaning advice isn’t really shared by farmers like Modi, for whom assured returns and well-established marketing channels makes sugarcane far more attractive than pulses. The only constraint in the case of cane is the availability of irrigation water, whether from underground via tube-wells or from canals.
Dattatreya Birle, a farmer from Karkatta village in Latur taluka/district, has for the past three years been growing tur on three out of his seven-acre land. The remaining four acres are under sugarcane, signifying how pulses are only a second option for farmers having access to basic irrigation. “It is only this year that I have actually made money from tur. Earlier, it barely covered my input costs”, he points out.
Birle estimates his total sugarcane cultivation costs at not more than Rs 50,000 per acre. With yields of 40 tonnes per acre and the official fair-and-remunerative price of Rs 2,300 per tonne payable by sugar mills, the crop offers a neat profit of Rs 40,000-plus. This is not so with pulses, where both prices and yields are prone to huge fluctuations.
Two years back, average modal prices of tur ruled under Rs 4,200 per quintal in Latur. Last year, at this time, they averaged Rs 7,400 per quintal, before climbing to a peak of Rs 1,18,000 in October and then to current levels of Rs 9,000 per quintal. Farmers fear that prices could crash in the event of a bumper crop, as it has happened lately in onions. Latur is a national price-setter for tur. Last year alone saw arrivals of some 2,00000 quintals of this legume in the wholesale market here.
“Last year was exceptional, but in a normal year, tur yields are 5-7 quintal per acre and prices not more than Rs 4,500 per quintal. At these levels, my returns, even if I engage only family labour, would be Rs 15,000-20,000. This is not even half of what cane gives,” adds Birle.
His views are echoed by Digambar Ingle, who farms eight acres at Khuntephal village in Latur taluka. He, too, grows tur only in three acres and devotes the rest to cane. “In cane, even harvesting and transportation is taken care of by the mill and I get my payment within 15 days. For tur, I have to myself arrange for harvesting and transporting the crop to the market. Nor is there any guarantee of stable price or yields,” notes Ingle, who supplies to the Manjara cooperative sugar factory founded by the late former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
Vilasrao’s son Amit Deshmukh — a director in the Manjara mill and also founder of the Vikas Cooperative Sugar Factory about 30 km away — believes that pitching cane against pulses “is a non-starter from the farmer’s standpoint”. In Marathwada, farmers plant both sugarcane and tur towards mid-June with the monsoon’s arrival. Tur is harvested during December-January, while cane varieties like Co-671 and Co-86032 varieties grown in this region mature in 9-10 months by March-April.
If the government is serious about promoting pulses cultivation, it should substantially hike their minimum support prices (MSP). The current MSP of Rs 4,625 per quintal for tur, inclusive of a Rs 200 bonus, just about covers production cost. “The least they could do is implement the MS Swaminathan committee’s recommendation of granting a minimum 50 per cent return over cost”, opines Amit Deshmukh, who is also the Congress MLA from Latur. That would mean an MSP of Rs 5,000 per quintal or more.
Lalitkumar Shah, chairman of the Latur Agriculture Produce Market Committee, concurs with this, while observing that the government’s MSPs are below even market prices. Moreover, even when procurement takes place, it is only sporadic. The government, in the past, never intervened when market prices had fallen below MSPs, which also explains why farmers aren’t too keen to grow pulses. When there is access to irrigation, they will prefer cultivating cane.
Nitin Kalantri, CEO of Kalantry Food Products, a leading dal miller and pulses trading firm from Latur, feels the government should restrain imports. It could even consider imposing an anti-dumping duty to provide “a level-playing field to Indian players”. According to him, imported tur was selling in the country at Rs 33 per kg three years ago, as against Rs 40 for the domestic produce. It led to farmers realising lower prices and ultimately cutting back on planting of pulses.
The same story could repeat itself if the monsoon turns out to be good this time and farmers, enthused by high prices, sharply ramp up pulses acreages. In the event of prices crashing once again, they may do worse — go back to tried-and-trusted sugarcane. “Farmers with financial capacity and irrigation access will continue to cultivate cane. The rest would go to pulses,” predicts Deshmukh.