FUNDAMENTAL changes in the functioning of the agrarian economy to benefit small farmers was a key promise made by the Bharatiya Janata Party when it rode to power in Maharashtra in 2014. Three years down the line, the state government appears to be perplexed with the challenges that the fickle agrarian economy has thrown at it. In its first year, the government was forced to tackle negative growth in agriculture and scarcity due to drought. This year, an oversupply of produce such as tur dal (pigeon pea) brought in a fresh set of problems.
The government’s inability to address these vagaries of the agrarian economy had led to an unprecedented farmers’ agitation, with the simmering discontent threatening to weigh the BJP government down.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has tried to fight his way out by announcing a Rs 30,000-crore farm loan waiver that will further deepen the state’s debt burden of around Rs 4 lakh crore.
Another criticism has been the agriculture department’s operations. The state Agriculture Minister Pandurang Phundkar has often been described as too low profile. His deputy Sadabhau Khot, while more visible, has had to focus on his own political survival after quitting his party, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, which supported the farmers’ strike earlier this year.
“The agriculture sector is like one big giant wheel rolling down a hill. It will move ahead even if you do not do anything. The real task is to stabilise this motion and ensure that it does not crash. The policies of this government, however, are such that they have left this sector to fend for itself. There is not much difference in how previous governments and this government have addressed the agrarian issues,” said Dr Giridhar Patil, a farmer leader.
Despite a decent monsoon this year, sowing area for kharif declined marginally. As per the Maharashtra government’s economic survey, the kharif season of 2016-17 saw sowing on 152.12 lakh hectares of land. This year, agriculture ministry data shows that sowing has been completed on only 146.49 hectares of land.
Farmers say the pinch from demonetisation last year, which threw APMCs out of gear, has continued to manifest in the complete paralysis of district cooperative banks and credit societies.
Their paralysis meant drying up of institutional finance for most farmers in the state. Four days after demonetisation, the RBI had imposed sanctions on district cooperative banks on the assumption that money could get laundered through these banks.
“A lot of time was taken to address the issues of district central cooperative banks, which did create problems in the rural areas,” Chairman of the Nashik District Central Cooperative Bank Narendra Darade said.
Another crisis was the massive glut of tur dal and the poor price realisation.
In Maharashtra, the production of tur went up to 11.71 lakh metric tonnes against 4.4 lakh metric tonnes last year. Due to improved rainfall, the tur sowing increased sharply but the market could not absorb the excess supply.
This meant that farmers were getting rates well below the Minimum Support Price. The government subsequently sanctioned a market intervention scheme to purchase tur stock from farmers, but this was mired in allegations that a large chunk of the tur dal procured by the state had been purchased from traders who had, in turn, got it from farmers at well below the MSP.
The state has also not been able to reverse the low coverage of crop insurance in Maharashtra, where it presently stands at less than 30 per cent of farmers.
On the positive side, the government launched the farmer-to-consumer markets alongside more APMC reforms for more barrier-free markets. It also started an innovative reform of giving 10,000 solar pumps for agriculture, offering round-the-year power, a reduced demand-supply gap and a lower subsidy burden on the state electricity board.
Another important decision that the government took this year was to make drip irrigation mandatory for the water intensive sugarcane cultivation. There had been rising concerns about over-exploitation of water in cultivation of sugarcane.
The government has also started a bid to encourage group farming, and the Maharashtra government plans to give Rs 1 crore in incentives to farmers who will pool 100 acres of land and common resources. The government aims to create 200 such farmers’ groups in the state so that resources can be used in common and farmers can derive more profits.
“We believe that this sharing of resources and knowledge will help farmers attain better productivity and profits. We need to bring in newer ideas to maximise returns of farmers. The government’s endeavour has been to ensure that farmers get returns, which commensurate with the hard work they put in,” Agriculture Minister Pandurang Phundkar said.