Jagdish Sharma,a marginal maize farmer in Katihar,committed suicide last month. The district administration rushed to clarify that Sharma was not driven to taking the extreme step because of debt or a poor maize yield. The farmers wife told the local media that her husband had taken a loan of Rs 15,000 on a high interest rate and went into depression when he made no profit out of his maize cultivation. The police never confirmed her story,ordering merely a routine inquest into the suicide.
Close on the heels of this incident,a farmer couple in Purnia reportedly tried to commit suicide by consuming insecticide. Fortunately,they were saved with medical intervention.
The two instances may well be dismissed as isolated ones,but the farmers of Kosi region have dejection writ large on their faces. They live by maize and the fact that its production has dipped this year by at least 30 per cent is there for all to see.
The serpentine queue of trucks along the Maheshkhut-Saharsa Road seen around this time of the year is missing. Local traders,who have to compensate for the loss of poor yield,started at a price of Rs 900 per quintal from the on-spot points. But as the price scaled up to Rs 1,050-Rs1,100 per quintal along with freight for buyers from outside the state,traders from Rajasthan,UP,Uttaranchal,Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh chose not to come. They got their maize at a lesser or same price as Bihar from the adjoining states.
Suman Kedia,owner of Kisan Seva Kendra,the biggest maize supplier in the Kosi region,told The Indian Express: As against the normal 40 quintal per acre,the yield is down to 30-32 quintal per acre this year. We have a very few farmers coming in from Uttaranchal,Ahmedabad,Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to buy our maize. These states buy maize for domestic consumption,poultry farms and starch production.
Kedia said the Kosi region had been able to export 3,60,000 metric tonnes maize so far,which,he said,is at least 40 per cent less than the last time.
Kedia,who deals with over 1,000 middlemen to buy maize from farmers from the entire region,explained that the December frost stunted the fruition of maize. Mono-culture of cultivation has not been doing any good to farmers. Plus,we have to depend on seeds from just one foreign company that has captured the seed market, he said while expressing fear about a further drop in maize production in the coming years.
He rued that farmers have to buy seeds every year with one-time used seeds. Local farmers,he said,have been out of seed selling business since long .
In the region,which is often ravaged by floods,maize can be grown with just two cycles of irrigation,on the sandy diara land,sustaining the economy of Supaul,Madhepura,Saharsa,Araria,Katihar and Purnia. Most significantly,cultivating maize on an acre requires just Rs 7,000 while the yield is worth five times of the expenditure. Maize,sown in November,is ready by March,and is up for sale from June till September.
The region has little option other than growing maize as its diara (riverine) land is most suitable for maize. Kosi,according to a study,is one of the most suitable maize growing regions in the world. I think of changing business but it is not so easy. Petty farmers have even fewer options, said Kedia.
It is the smaller farmers and traders who have been pushed to the edge. Mohammed Hasib,a farmer at Maheshi in Saharsa who has to feed a family of five,said: I grow maize on four acres of land. This time,the production is less than 120 quintals as against the 160 quintals last year.
Hasib said he would have to look for some job after selling maize. Maybe a job for four months in Delhi or Punjab can help. I have not left my family back home ever; I might have to do it this time.
Farmers said the state government has done precious little for them. We have to contact traders from outside the state. The agriculture department has never promoted the maize of Kosi, said Phul Bhagat,a farmer at Beldaur in Khagaria.
Sanjay Soni,of Saharsa,said: Saharsa,Madhepura and Khagaria are ideal places to start maize-based industries. We have a great potential to start starch units,but there is no concerted plan.
Now,at a time when 28 out of 38 districts in Bihar are drought-hit,failure of maize crop in Kosi could well deal a body blow to the states economy. However,Bihar Kisan Ayog chairman U N Verma said there was no immediate plan in place to boost maize cultivation in the region. The message is clear: farmers here have to fend for themselves.