A disappointing monsoon, seasons of struggle for the state’s farmers, high farm loans and an endless cycle of debt: this seems to be the story of the farm sector in Maharashtra over the last few years. This year — when monsoon has remained deficient despite initial forecasts assuring it would be normal — may be no different. However, the stakes are higher this time, as both assembly and general elections are only a few months away and yet another spell of farm distress may cost the ruling party heavily.
Ironically, monsoon had started on a positive note this year: it had come early and weather scientists had said it would be normal. The first week of June received plenty of rain and sowing in major parts of the state was completed well before schedule. The drought-prone districts in Marathwada division had reported rainfall that was above normal: 117 per cent higher, to be precise.
Soybean farmers were upbeat about the prospect of better realisation, while the sowing of oilseed had increased by almost 10 per cent. But a long dry spell hit the state in July, and hopes of a normal monsoon began to fade. That month, Aurangabad and Nashik divisions recorded 66.5 and 54.3 per cent of rain, and the situation was only slightly better in August, when these divisions received 77 and 93.7 per cent rainfall respectively. The moisture stress in July had already taken a toll on the crop and farmers saw lower yields. Other parts of the state, meanwhile, received close to normal rainfall that was sufficient for the standing crop.
The truant monsoon will also hit cultivation in the months to come. Growers in Nashik and Marathwada may be able to cultivate barely any rabi crop as dams in these areas have precariously low water levels. Dams in Nashik are just 64.7 per cent full, while the situation in Marathwada is far worse, with its dams only 25.91 per cent full.
The low level, especially in Marathwada, has also put a question mark on whether authorities will sanction the release of water later in the year for rabi crops. Lower yields in kharif season has already put farmers at a disadvantage and, as prospects in rabi season seem bleak, farmers in these areas are staring at another cycle of agrarian distress.
This monsoon has also had an erratic and uneven spatial distribution. While districts in Nashik and Marathwada are reeling under drought-like conditions, those in Vidarbha and western Maharashtra have been luckier as they received more rains and their dams are more full. Growers in these areas can hope for a better rabi crop.
Farmers in the state have little to cheer about on the price front, as almost all commodities are trading well below their government-declared Minimum Support Price, including the usually bullish soybean. In the case of oilseeds, traders and oil millers say the loss in yield in some areas will be offset by better yields in both Vidarbha as well as neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.
Although export of deoiled soy oilcake — the protein-rich residue left after the oil is extracted — is supposed to touch an all-time high, domestic prices of the bean remain low and may fall further. Tur, another major kharif crop, may also not fetch high prices as stock from the last season will keep prices down. In fact, while tur plantation has decreased over the last two years, prices have failed to pick up.
Various farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra have started demanding that the state government declare a drought. But given the erratic nature of monsoon, this is going to be difficult.
Meanwhile, farmers are struggling with low prices of commodities and the prospect of further loss from the rabi crop. The state is balanced precariously on the edge of yet another agrarian crisis, and urgent measures need to be taken to prevent such a scenario. So close to the election year, such a crisis is bound to have major political ramifications as well.