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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Ground Zero: The village that has spawned a movement

The Indian Express travels to Puntamba, from where the ongoing farmers’ agitation in Maharashtra began and has spread beyond. The Puntamba farmers’ basic demand is a robust mechanism to ensure remunerative prices, which is the ultimate antidote to their chronic debt problems.

Written by Partha Sarathi Biswas | Puntamba (maharashtra) | Updated: June 8, 2017 8:58:29 am
Farmers Protest, Maharashtra Farmers, Maharashtra farmer protest Dairy farmer Nitin Dhanvate with his cross-bred cows and six-month-old daughter. (Source: Partha Sarathi Biswas)

After one-and-a-half years of incurring heavy losses, Nitin Dhanvate’s dairy business has just about turned around in the last four months. The 32-year-old is now receiving Rs 28 per litre for the cow milk, containing 3.5 per cent fat and 8.5 per cent SNF (solids-not-fat), he is supplying to Prabhat Dairy Ltd. The same dairy — and also the Godavari Khore cooperative and two private milk contractors operating in the village — was till December paying Rs 18 per litre.

Dhanvate sells on an average 40 litres from his six Holstein-Friesian crossbreds, not all of which yield milk at the same time. “My total monthly outgo on feed concentrates and other inputs comes to roughly Rs 24,000. Only since February have I been making a profit of nearly Rs 10,000 per month, as against losses of Rs 2,400 when the milk price was Rs 18 per litre,” notes this full-time dairy farmer, who grows kadba (lucerne or alfalfa fodder) on his entire four-acre land. “Had I been buying fodder, my losses would have been even more. But despite that, I have had to reduce my herd size from the 15 cows giving 100-odd litres daily two years back,” he adds.

Dhanvate epitomises the average angry young Maratha farmer of Puntamba, the village on the banks of the Godavari in Ahmednagar district’s Rahata taluka that has spawned the ongoing agitation by ryots across western Maharashtra. He, like all other farmers here, has since June 1 stopped supplying milk to the four dairies/contractors procuring 5,000 litres or so daily from the village. Puntamba’s Gram Sabha, on April 3, passed a resolution warning of a ‘Shetkari Sampa’ (Strike of the Ryots) from June 1. Their charter of demands addressed to the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis included implementation of the MS Swaminathan committee’s recommendation of ensuring crop realisation levels at least 50 per cent above production costs, a complete waiver of farm loans, 100 per cent subsidy on drip/sprinkler irrigation systems, and — of immediate relevance to Dhanvate — a minimum milk purchase price of Rs 50 per litre.

“We not only wanted this price, but also a mechanism forcing dairies to pay it. Last June, the state government raised its official procurement price for cow milk from Rs 19 to Rs 22 a litre, but the dairies, both private and cooperative, were still paying us Rs 18. They started paying more from February, only because of milk shortages arising from farmers cutting back on production and herd sizes. And even the current prices will not be paid, once milk production recovers with the onset of the monsoon and increased fodder availability,” says Dhanvate, who has seen better times when he selling his 100-plus litres that fetched a rate of Rs 25 or more.

Farmers Protest, Maharashtra Farmers A billboard at the Puntamba village square asking farmers to participate in a Maharashtra bandh on June 1. Partha Sarathi Biswas

But Puntamba’s crisis isn’t about milk alone. Farmers in the 16,000-strong village with over 4,500 acres of largely-irrigated farmland and seven primary agricultural cooperative societies (PACS) — which makes it relatively prosperous compared to the drought-prone rural landscapes of Marathwada or Vidarbha — also talk of their losses over the last 2-3 years from growing other crops, including onion, soybean and sugarcane.

Sunil Pare, 49, claims to have spent Rs 70,000 on seed, fertiliser, labour, pesticide and other inputs for cultivation of rabi onions on his two-acre holding. Despite harvesting 130 quintals of the bulb in March, he is yet to sell a single kg so far. “Prices at the Rahata market yard were Rs 500 per quintal in March and have only fallen further since to Rs 400-450. At these rates, I cannot even recover my investment. What alternative do I have other than holding on to my crop?” he complains. The same story is repeated in soyabean, where Pare could realise just Rs 2,700 per quintal for the nine quintals that he sold in November — just after the Narendra Modi government’s decision to demonetise all existing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denomination notes. The previous year’s rate that Pare got was Rs 3,500 per quintal.

Dhanajay Dhanvate, a 24-acre landowner and homeopathic doctor, who is also manager of the Asha Kiran Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre at Puntamba, puts the total farm loan defaults in the village at Rs 1.80 crore. “80 per cent of our farmers are staring at economic insolvency. And these are not people who you could call poor by traditional standards,” he says. But according to him, loan defaults — hence the demand for waiver — are only “symptom”; the real underlying “disease” is low prices. The unpaid loans owed by Puntamba’s farmers are primarily to Bank of Maharashtra, Axis Bank and four PACS, which, in turn, have borrowed from the Ahmednagar District Central Cooperative Bank.

The Puntamba farmers’ decision to go ahead with their Shetkari Sampa found favour with their counterparts in neighbouring villages and beyond. As the movement spread to the entire western belt — from Nashik, Ahmednagar and Pune down to Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur — a five-member ‘core committee’ was formed to negotiate with the state government. The committee included Dhananjay Jadhav, who belonged to Puntamba, and Dhananjay Dhorde from Dongaon, a nearby village in Vaijapur taluka.

The stir began as scheduled on June 1, but was called off after two days, following a meeting of the core committee with the Chief Minister Fadnavis, who announced a Rs 30,000 crore loan waiver package targeting small and marginal farmers in the state. That decision, however, did not go well with most of Puntamba’s farmers. “This was a complete betrayal. How could they have taken the decision to withdraw? They should at least have consulted the Gram Sabha,” remarks Dhananjay Dhanvate. One indicator of the mood at Puntamba is that Jadhav has not returned to the village since the June 3 meeting in Mumbai that went on late into the night.

The Puntamba farmers’ basic demand is a robust mechanism to ensure remunerative prices, which is the ultimate antidote to their chronic debt problems. “What stops the government from forcing dairies to pay its declared procurement price? The Rs 22 per litre price is not much, but can at least keep us afloat. We can, then, try and cut costs through increased fodder yields and optimal feeding practices,” observes Nitin Dhanvate.

There are some others — such as Yogesh Rayate of Khadak Malegaon village of Nashik’s Niphad taluka — who suggest that the government could also disseminate regular production and sowing area updates for crops such as onions: “The government already knows the minimum area required to avoid production shortage. With satellite imagery, it is possible to also know the progressive area coverage on a daily basis. If the farmer is provided both the former and latter data during the sowing season, he will know how much exactly to plant and avoid overproduction”.
That suggestion is, perhaps, well worth considering in these troubled times.

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