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Sunday, November 29, 2020

When makka sells cheaper than bhusa: Bihar’s maize growers suffer lockdown blues

Bihar produces a quarter of India's corn, but few politicians are talking about a crop that generates over Rs 7,500 crore annual income for its farmers.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Begusarai, Khagaria | Updated: October 30, 2020 6:11:48 pm
bihar elections 2020, bihar farmers, bihar agriculture, lockdown effect on bihar farmers, bihar crops, makka, bhusa, bihar elections, bihar assembly elections 2020, indian expressFarmer Anil Kumar Kumar with his unsold corn from last year's crop in Tulsitol village of Bihar's Begusarai district. (Express photo by Harish Damodaran)

Makka hai das rupiah aur bhusa chaudah (maize is selling for Rs 10 and wheat straw for Rs 14)”. This statement by Chandrasekhar Kumar, a 15-bigha (13 acres) farmer from Sapaha village in Gogri block of Khagaria district, sums up the situation of Bihar’s most profitable, if not biggest, crop.

Kumar grows maize on 10, wheat on 3, mustard on 1, and fodder sorghum and barley on the remaining one bigha for his 10 buffaloes. The 45-year-old harvested 480 quintals of maize this May-June, more than last year’s 400 quintals. But the price he got from selling to a vyapari (village-level aggregator) was just Rs 950-1,000/quintal, as against Rs 1,700 the previous year.

Kumar is every inch a progressive farmer, as good as his counterparts in Punjab or Haryana. His corn yields, at 48 quintals per bigha or 55.2/acre, are even higher than the 200 bushel (50 quintals/acre) levels of farmers in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. He mainly plants corn hybrids of Bayer Crop Science – including its newly launched ‘DKC-9188’ that is claimed to have better plant strength and delivers more uniform cobs with shinier and higher percentage of grains – and also uses the German multinational’s ‘Gaucho’ (a seed treatment chemical) and ‘Laudis’ (a post-emergence herbicide to control weeds). Even in wheat, he sows DCM Shriram Ltd’s ‘Super 303’ that gives up to 23 quintals/acre, compared to the 16-17 quintals from normal publicly-bred varieties.

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“Kya faida jab uchit bhaav hi nahi milta (what use is all this if the price isn’t good)?,” asks Kumar.

That is a sentiment voiced by every maize farmer in Bihar. The feed grain is cultivated across much of the state north of the Ganga – the Kosi belt (Khagaria, Bhagalpur, Saharsa, Madhepura, Supaul, Araria, Kishanganj, Purnia and Katihar) and westwards from Begusarai, Samastipur and Darbhanga to Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Saran, Siwan, Gopalganj, East and West Champaran. All these areas vote in the second and third phases of the ongoing Assembly elections on November 3 and 7.

Corn farmers in Sapaha village of Bihar’s Khagaria district. (Express photo by Harish Damodaran)

Bihar has an estimated 14,000-15,000 tonnes market for hybrid maize seeds during the rabi season, where sowing extends from mid-October to end-December and harvesting from mid-April to June. At about 8 kg seeds per acre and the state’s average rabi maize yield of 36 quintal/acre, that would translate into 17.5-18.5 lakh acres and 6.5 million tonnes (mt), respectively. The value of this produce, at a normal farmgate price of Rs 1,200/quintal, is well over Rs 7,500 crore.

But farmers now aren’t getting even that rate, forget the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,760/quintal declared by the Narendra Modi government for the 2019-20 crop.

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“Last May, my crop fetched Rs 1,800/quintal. This May, they ruled at Rs 1,000 and I sold only 11 out of my 92 quintals, thinking that prices will improve. Instead, they fell to Rs 900-950 in June-July, when I sold another 40 quintals. The balance I disposed of early this month at Rs 1,050/quintal, which was the maximum the vyapari here was offering,” says Ramashankar Yadav (65), who farms maize on 2.5 acres, wheat on 5 and fodder crops on 0.5 of his 8-acres holding in Rariauna village of Begusarai’s Naokothi block.

Corn farmer Ramashankar Yadav of Rariauna village of Bihar’s Begusarai district. (Express photo by Harish Damodaran)

Even worse off is Anil Kumar Yadav of Tulsitol in Balia block of the same district. This farmer harvested 15 tractor-trolley loads of maize cobs, each of 40 quintals, during late-April to early-May. He sold the threshed grain from 5 of these loads in May at Rs 1,200/quintal.

“I waited in vain for prices to rise and still have 10 unsold loads, which won’t fetch more than Rs 1,050 due to keeda (weevil infestation),” states the 55-year-old, who planted maize on 12, wheat on 10 and mustard on 3 out of his total 25 acres. For the coming rabi season, he plans to halve his maize area to 6 acres, while expanding that under wheat to 13 and mustard to 6 acres.

For Bihar, which produces nearly a quarter of India’s maize and three-fourths of the rabi season crop, corn has been nothing short of a revolution. It was triggered by multinationals led by Cargill and Pioneer (which became DuPont Pioneer and then Corteva Agriscience). They introduced single-cross hybrid corn cultivation to India, including Bihar, in 1992-93. By the late 1990s, Cargill had exited the business, even as Monsanto (now part of Bayer) entered.

Out of India’s annual 1.25 lakh tonnes hybrid maize seeds market – worth roughly Rs 3,750 crore at Rs 300/kg – the big two (Pioneer/Corteva and Bayer) have around 20 per cent share each and Syngenta another 10 per cent. The rest is distributed among Kaveri Seeds, Nuziveedu Seeds, Rasi Seeds, Tata Rallis, Shriram Bioseed and a host of smaller domestic players.

Bihar’s farmers were the ones who took naturally to growing maize – particularly in rabi, where the mild temperatures with clear skies, absence of flooding and low pest/disease incidence during this period enabled yields at least twice that from the regular post-monsoon kharif season. Maize emerged as the Kosi belt’s lifeline. The crop spread elsewhere as well, barring the southern districts that are a catchment area for the Ganga. Farmers there largely grow paddy and wheat in the uplands and rabi pulses in low-lying areas – especially the ‘tal’ wetlands that get submerged under the rising river waters during monsoons.

In the Kosi belt, where landholdings are also bigger, rabi maize is a commercial crop and farmers spend upwards of Rs 20,000 per acre. That includes on seed (which costs anywhere from Rs 300 to Rs 450/kg or Rs 2,400-3,600/acre), fertiliser (Rs 3,000-3,200), chemicals (Rs 1,500 on insecticides and Rs 2,000 on new-generation herbicides such as Bayer’s ‘Laudis’, BASF’s ‘Tynzer’ and Dhanuka Agritech’s ‘Sempra) and irrigation (three rounds using diesel gen-sets will cost Rs 5,500-6,000).

The returns from these investments have, however, diminished considerably with the crop price collapse post Covid-19. Almost 50 per cent of India’s maize demand is from the poultry feed industry. Chicken and egg consumption is yet to recover, as hotels, restaurants, hostels, canteens and caterers for wedding receptions and other public functions haven’t fully resumed operations. Bihar’s maize growers, whose crop was being harvested at the height of the lockdown, bore the brunt.

“Given my yields (50 quintals-plus), I’m not losing money even at Rs 1,000/quintal. But those with lower yields will switch to crops like wheat, where the cultivation cost is Rs 11,000-12,000 per acre,” explains Chandrasekhar Kumar. His demand: Why can’t the government ensure an MSP of at least Rs 1,500/quintal, so that makka sells higher than bhusa?

For now, nobody’s promising anything. The BJP’s Bihar poll manifesto has assured MSP-based procurement in pulses, but not in maize. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s document barely mentions the feed grain, whose contribution to the state’s agricultural economy remains undervalued.

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