Even as Union Minister Amit Shah has sounded the poll bugle in Bihar through a virtual rally of the BJP, there is trouble brewing on account of sliding maize prices that could have a bearing on the Assembly elections scheduled in October-November.
Bihar accounts for over 80 per cent of India’s 6-7 million tonnes (mt) annual production of rabi maize, which is sown in November-December and marketed in May-June. Maize prices at Gulabbagh, the state’s largest mandi for the feed grain in Purnia, are currently averaging Rs 1,250 per quintal. This is way below the Rs 2,000-2,400 rates in wholesale markets across India from last June-July till January and also the government’s minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,760/quintal for 2019-20.
Maize is a major crop in Bihar’s eastern districts north of the Ganga and on either side of the Kosi: Begusarai, Khagaria, Saharsa, Madhepura, Bhagalpur, Katihar, Purnia, Araria and Kishanganj. These nine districts cover 50 out of the state’s 243 Assembly seats.
“The Food Corporation of India should open procurement centres and start buying at the MSP. The Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had, only three years ago, promised to open one centre here. I reminded him about it three days back,” said Choudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser, sitting Lok Sabha MP from Khagaria.
Kaiser’s Lok Janshakti Party, headed by Paswan, is part of the ruling alliance in Bihar along with the BJP and Janata Dal (United). Union Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Minister Giriraj Singh is the BJP MP from Begusarai, which is also a maize-growing district.
“We are suffering a double whammy. First, it was unseasonal rains and hailstorm in April, which has halved my grain yields to just over 20 quintals per acre from last year’s 40 quintals. Now, prices, too, have halved. Last year, I sold my crop to traders here at Rs 2,160 per quintal and they were paying Rs 2,000 to lift from the farm. This time, the actual farm price realisation is only Rs 1,000-1,100 per quintal,” claimed Avdhesh Kumar, a farmer from Pirnagra village in Khagaria’s Beldaur tehsil.
Maize is a remunerative crop, especially when grown in the rabi season. The long cropping duration, mild temperatures with clear skies, absence of flooding, and low pest and disease incidence during this period is conducive for high yields in Bihar’s naturally fertile soil. Many farmers harvest 50 quintals and above per acre, comparable to the yields in Midwest US.
“The cultivation cost is Rs 15,000-18,000 per acre. At 40 quintals yield and Rs 2,000/quintal rate, we can make good money,” pointed out Kumar, who grows rabi maize on eight acres. That includes four acres taken on lease, for which the landowner has to be paid in kind (at 12 quintals per acre). “This time, I will not recover even my basic production cost,” he added.
On June 2, farmers tried to organise a protest against the crash in maize prices at the Purnia Collectorate. They were denied permission by the district administration, which cited the risk of Covid-19 transmission. “Why declare an MSP of Rs 1,760 per quintal, when farmers aren’t getting even Rs 1,200 and the same parties are ruling both at the Centre and state?,” quipped Shambhu Mandal, who farms maize on 9 acres of his own at Kajha village, 14 km from Purnia town.
Rishav Kumar, a trader at Beldaur, attributed the price crash to lack of demand from the poultry industry. This, even as many farmers reported yields to be 10% or more lower than last year’s levels.
Maize accounts for 60% of broiler chicken feed by weight. Poultry farmers give around 3.5 kg of feed for a 35-40 gm day-old chick to grow to a 2-2.5 kg live broiler bird over 35-40 days. The share of maize by weight is lower, at about 20% for layer hen feed (125 gm per egg) and 10-12 per cent in cattle feed.
Balram Singh Yadav, managing director of Godrej Agrovet Ltd, India’s largest compound feed manufacturer, estimated the country’s monthly broiler production to have collapsed from 30 crore live birds in January to 11-12 crore in May. Monthly egg production has also dropped from 900 crore to 700 crore during this period. The fall started from mid-January, following a misinformation campaign linking the spread of Covid-19 to consumption of poultry products. The lockdown from March 25 was the last straw, as out-of-home consumption came to a halt with the closure of hotels, restaurants and catering businesses along with hostels and canteens.
“A large section of chicken eaters are vegetarians at home. Roughly 45% of chicken consumption in India is out-of-home. The figure is 25% in eggs, which are also served under the midday meals programme in schools,” Yadav told The Indian Express.
The effects of it are being felt now by Bihar’s maize farmers, who were expecting good prices on the back of a relatively poor kharif crop in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Out of India’s annual 24-25 mt maize production, 17-18 mt is during kharif (June-July sowing and October-November harvesting), 6-7 mt in rabi and one mt in spring (February-March sowing and June-July harvesting).
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