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‘Not undermining pandemic, but prolonged lockdown is neither helping farmers nor the rural economy’

Ahead of the Kharif season, Shetti talks to The Indian Express about the challenges confronting farmers due to the second wave of Covid-19

Written by Shubhangi Khapre |
May 27, 2021 2:37:41 am
From being banished to winning Morshi— how table turned for Devendra BhuyarRaju Shetti, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana. (File)

The Maharashtra government should not extend beyond June 1 the statewide lockdown imposed to rein in Covid-19 cases if it does not want farmers who are already facing losses to suffer more, says Raju Shetti, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS). Ahead of the Kharif season, Shetti talks to The Indian Express about the challenges confronting farmers due to the second wave of Covid-19, protests against the farm laws, and the union’s stand on the state’s ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.

What are the farmers’ concerns regarding the upcoming Kharif season?

The biggest challenge is access to quality seeds and fertilisers in time. Last year, the farmers, especially soybean cultivators, had to go for a second or third sowing due to substandard seeds. Besides, unseasonal rains during harvest season destroyed crops and did not allow them to stock homegrown seeds. Therefore, the government should make provisions for high-quality seeds at reasonable cost. Another issue is fertilisers — The farmers should get them at last year’s rates as promised by the Centre.

The Met department has predicted timely and good monsoon. This should be a huge relief?

Good monsoon is one aspect but farmers should also have adequate resources — both in terms of finance and manpower. With Covid-19 curbs in place, the pre-Kharif field work has suffered due to lack of farm labourers. Besides, seasonal vegetable and fruit cultivation had to incur huge losses due to restrictions. Farmers in Kolhapur even had to dump their produce on some occasions.

Don’t you think the lockdown has made many revert to agriculture in rural Maharashtra?

It’s a fact that a higher percentage of people is relying on agriculture for livelihood now. But prolonged restrictions are not helping the farmers. Although farming activities are exempted from restrictions on paper, there are hurdles. For example: inter-district curbs have impacted the availability of work force, banks and Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) are functioning in restricted timings with limited staff, district agriculture centres are closed. Nobody is monitoring seed and fertilisers supply. How does a farmer access seeds? Sowing will start from June. So, where are the preparations?

Do you believe unlocking will boost rural economy?

Yes. I am not undermining the pandemic. But prolonged lockdown is neither helping farmers nor rural economy. Dairy farmers are among the worst-hit, they are getting only Rs 17 to 20 for each litre of milk instead of Rs 25 to 30. With hotels, restaurants and sweets shops shut, the demand for milk has shrunk by 25 to 30 per cent. Financial aid by the government has its limitations. Unless we allow free functioning of all sectors with Covid-19 guidelines, the condition of farmers will not improve.

Do you see any change in cropping pattern in Kharif 2021?

Apart from the traditional soyabean, cotton, and sugarcane, the farmers were inclined towards pulses. But the Centre’s decision to withdraw restriction and allow open policy to import pulses — tur, moong, urad — will be a huge setback to farmers. The surplus pulses will bring down the price. The farmers are disappointed with the Centre’s decision. I think it was a wrong move made at the wrong time.

But last year, soybean farmers fetched higher remuneration despite problems related with seeds?

Soybean was sold at Rs 7,000 to Rs 7,500 per quintal in the open market. But it has not helped the small and marginal farmers. When the crop was harvested, the prices were extremely low — at Rs 3,000 to 3,500. The middle agents or private companies who are stocking the farm produce are manipulating the markets. I can state with guarantee that in Kharif 2021 too, farmers will sell the soybean at Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500. But when it comes in open market, the rates will shoot above Rs 7,000 .

What is the stand of SSS on Centre’s new farm laws as farmers’ protest completes six months?

There is no question of supporting the bills. All three laws are serving the interest of select rich corporate houses close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The SSS supports the farmers’ protest. Street agitation and rallies have been on hold as mobilising people during the pandemic is difficult and risky. But we will not budge from our protest.

Finally, are you distancing yourself from MVA government’s politics?

SSS is an independent party committed to farmers’ cause. Recently, I raised the issue of mills not paying sugar cane farmers fair remuneration in time. (But) it does not mean I am against the MVA and joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). We are an ally of the MVA; there is no question of a handshake with the BJP.

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