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New Maharashtra govt’s challenge: Farmers in drought-prone Vidarbha reel, this time from excess rain

The story of agriculture in Maharashtra’s traditionally drought-prone Vidarbha region this time is simple: It has rained so much, especially from September, that the standing crop has wilted from excess water in fields.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Updated: November 28, 2019 1:17:40 am
vidarbha, vidarbha farmers, vidarbha rains, vidarbha cotton farmers, maharashtra farmers, farmers woes, india news The cotton mandi at Hinganghat wears a relatively deserted look. (Deepak Daware’)

AT Daroda village in this cotton-rich taluka of Wardha district, Dilip Pohane expects to harvest just nine quintals of kapas (raw un-ginned cotton) from a 2.5-acre field and 15 quintals from an adjoining 2.1-acre plot. Last year, his produce from these two pieces of irrigated land was 42 quintals.

Lokesh Khaire’s story is no different. His four acres, which is also irrigated by an open well, is likely to yield only 25 quintals — half of last year’s. And that’s not much more than the 10 quintals from Mukesh Jaronde’s un-irrigated two-acre field at Wadner village.

Even worse is the condition of arhar/tur or pigeon-pea, generally sown as an inter-crop on one row after every six of cotton. Khaire had got five quintals last time, while he sees the current crop yielding three quintals at best. Jaronde’s arhar crop, on the other hand, is completely gone, as against the five quintals harvested in 2018-19.

The story of agriculture in Maharashtra’s traditionally drought-prone Vidarbha region this time is simple: It has rained so much, especially from September, that the standing crop has wilted from excess water in fields, whether having irrigation facility or not. November is when farms in Hinganghat taluka are normally full of labourers picking kapas. Instead, they — and also the Hinganghat mandi, Maharashtra’s biggest wholesale cotton market — are wearing a deserted look. While the crop from a distance is all green, the plants, on closer look, bear very few cotton bolls. Even they have partly acquired a yellow tinge.

“Till August, we seemed headed for a record cotton, arhar and soyabean crop in Vidarbha. But now those estimates will have to be significantly revised downwards,” a top state agriculture department official tells The Indian Express.

vidarbha, vidarbha farmers, vidarbha rains, vidarbha cotton farmers, maharashtra farmers, farmers woes, india news Lokesh Khaire at his virtually boll-less cotton field at Daroda village in Maharashtra’s Wardha district. (Deepak Daware)

Maharashtra’s cotton output for 2019-20 is currently placed at 99.58 lakh bales of 170 kg each. However, that estimate, roughly 40% higher than last year’s, was made in August. About 42 lakh hectare area has been sown under the crop, 3% more than last year, with Vidarbha alone accounting for over 18 lakh hectares.

For the new Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition government set to take charge on Thursday, the first major agricultural challenge isn’t going to be redrawing production estimates. Rather, it would be in dealing with the havoc wreaked by heavy unseasonal rains — and providing relief to farmers like Pohane, Khaire and Jaronde. All three claim that nobody, including the local agriculture assistant, has visited their fields to do an official panchnama of the crop damage suffered by them. Government formation in limbo for over a month since declaration of Assembly election results hasn’t helped either.

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“Every year, we get labourers from Parbhani and Nanded in Marathwada to pick our crop. This time, they have had to go back. But what’s there for them to pick? Can you see anything?,” asks Pohane, pointing to his field.

The Hinganghat agricultural produce market committee (APMC) mandi gets cotton from Yavatmal, Nagpur, Chandrapur and even more distant Nanded and Gadchiroli districts. This yard handles 15-20 lakh quintals of kapas arrivals in a full marketing year starting November. Last November, the mandi had received 90,354 quintals, with the figures even higher at 2,09,068 quintals and 5,59,068 quintals for the same month of the preceding two years. This time, arrivals were only about 18,000 quintals till November 25.

“The arrivals are very low and will probably remain so in the rest of the season,” admits Tukaram Chambhare, secretary of the Hinganghat APMC. While cotton pickings — farmers do 3-4 of them — start in November, arhar arrivals take place only after January. Even these are expected to be very low.

But a poor crop hasn’t translated into better prices. Medium-long staple kapas is now trading below Rs 5,000 per quintal at Hinganghat, as against the Centre’s minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 5,405 and last year’s Rs 5,600-plus levels at this time.

“Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has started buying. But since the MSP is for a baseline moisture content of 8% and they don’t procure any cotton having above 12% — apart from paying only after 10 days on producing copies of 7/12 land revenue extract, bank passbook and Aadhaar card — most farmers prefer selling in the open market,” notes Chambhare. And with farmers bringing kapas having even 17% moisture content, only traders are purchasing. No wonder, CCI has so far procured just over 2,650 quintals from the Hinganghat APMC.

Om Dalia, director of the Prakash Group, a leading Hinganghat-based cotton ginning-cum-pressing and oil producing concern, blames the low kapas prices mainly on the global market. The benchmark international Cotlook ‘A’ Index price is ruling at below 75 cents per pound, compared to 86 cents a year ago. As a result, India’s raw cotton exports have plunged to $263.06 million during April-October, from $1.01 billion for the same period of 2018.

“Not only are lint (fibre) prices down, even the rates of cottonseed oilcake (used as animal feed) have significantly eased in the last three months. With quality also poor due to untimely rains, no trader can pay the MSP for kapas today,” he states.

Dalia and also farm activist Vijay Jawandia feel that the government should pay the difference between the MSP and the open market price directly into the accounts of farmers. “What’s the use of MSP if CCI is hardly buying? Today, cotton prices are low for US farmers as well. But nobody’s committing suicide there because the US government is compensating farmers for their losses,” Jawandia points out.

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