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New life to the lands of death

The feedback is very clear: there has been no improvement in the situation of distressed Vidarbha farmers following the visit of the Nationa...

Written by M S Swaminathan |
February 13, 2006

The feedback is very clear: there has been no improvement in the situation of distressed Vidarbha farmers following the visit of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) in October 2005 and the announcement of a relief package by the government of Maharashtra, last December. As evident from the series in The Indian Express (‘The Killing Cotton Fields’, February 5-9), the suicides of farmers have continued unabated, in fact its rate has actually increased.

Clearly, there are a number of issues that the state government’s relief package does not address. In addition to the reports in the media, the NCF also sent a fact-finding mission led by R.V. Bhavani to the Nagpur and Wardha districts, which only confirmed the distress among the farmers. The Commission has made the following observations and suggestions to the Maharashtra government, some aspects of which need to be flagged.

On credit, the Commission felt that the moratorium on repayment and waiver of interest on loans only up to Rs 25,000, which was announced in the package, was inadequate. The ceiling should be at least Rs 1 lakh for crop loans and Rs 1 lakh for term loans. Simultaneously, interest rates on farm credit should be lowered and its reach expanded. The crackdown on private money-lenders, without viable alternatives for extending credit to farmers being put in place, has further aggravated the situation.

There is no scheme in the formal credit structure for extending personal loans to farm families — to meet social and consumption expenditure — as in the case of salaried personnel. This increases their dependence on money-lenders. It has suggest that land development banks should be asked to resume lending operations immediately through an appropriate infusion of funds. They were once the main sources of funds for farmers but have now become defunct. The cooperative credit system also needs to be revitalised.

The Commission also suggested a review of the eligibility criterion for compensation. Take the case of 27-year-old Sudam Tukaram Moyer, who committed suicide last November. He is survived by his 22-year-old wife, an infant daughter and aged parents. The land he cultivated is in his father’s name, as also his Rs 40,000 bank loan. There was no compensation given to his family even though he was the only one tilling the land. The Commission has also suggested that the government’s relief package must provide for sustainable livelihood opportunities for the widows and the education of children.

The Commission looked long and hard at cotton farming. Cotton prices are at an all-time low — farmers have even sold their cotton for as low as Rs 1,500 per quintal. The Commission wanted the present support price for cotton to be examined and a rationally minimum support price, in line with input costs, be fixed. It also argued that the import duty on cotton should be increased immediately to prevent the dumping of cheap cotton from other countries, even while local cotton-based industries be promoted. A survey by Yavatmal’s Savitiri Jyotirao College of Social Work has shown that small farmers are unaware of soil and water conservation methods. Agriculture extension officers should be compulsorily made to stay in villages and advise such farmers.

The other important, but neglected area, is the psychological counselling of farmers. The break-up of the joint family system has lowered the support systems locally available. There are numerous instances where the family is not even aware of the loan burden on the farmer. The pressure of high social expenditures — as, for instance, marriages — has also increased the burden on the farmer. Added to this is the social pressure of bad debts. The Commission recommended that counselling centres for farmers should be immediately set up in the distress hotspots.

There are, besides, general improvements that can be promoted. Like the setting up of an integrated crop-livestock system. Farmers should be advised on how they can move from mono-cropping to multiple cropping, or crop-tree cultivation systems. Generally speaking, high cost input packages are not suitable for rainfed areas. The cost of the inputs has increased over the years and, if the rains fail, the loss becomes too much to bear. Farmers should be allowed to keep their input costs low. There are technologies available to reduce the consumption of pesticides and fertilisers, awareness of which should be disseminated among farmers.

The killing cotton fields of Maharashtra are waiting for the healing touch.

The writer is an acknowledged world authority on sustainable food security

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