Western Uttar Pradesh

‘Cash bombs’ in rural U.P.

Print edition : December 09, 2016

Residents of Basendua village in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, wait at a bank to exchange their notes. Small farmers and agricultural labourers are at the receiving end of the government’s shock decision. Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP

A sugarcane farmer with his crop in Modinagar, Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh. It is harvest time and the daily wagers have not turned up in several places as the farmers cannot pay them in cash. Those who come are paid in kind. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

Times are bleak in the season of sowing wheat, mustard and lentil in western Uttar Pradesh.

MASURI is a hamlet in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district, on National Highway 24. It is often hidden by a row of tractors and trucks loaded with sugarcane. An occasional goat tethered to a tree or dogs running around complete the picture.

This time though the scene is different. The inhabitants, many of whose ancestors survived the massacre of Partition, are a worried lot. It is sugarcane harvest time and the daily wagers have not turned up for over a week as the farmers cannot pay them in cash. Only those labourers who accept their wages in kind are available. They are paid in inferior or rejected sugarcane for their day’s labour. The workers in turn use these canes as fuel. Even these meagre earnings are welcome when cash has virtually disappeared from rural India.

Says Hafiz Sheikh Mansoor Ahmed, a villager: “I have had a small plot of land here for a long time. Things have been bleak for many years now, but this is the worst. We have not had a suitable procurement price for sugarcane for the past five-six years. This time, with the elections near, we were expecting better times, but then Modi ji’s move took us all by surprise. I do not have cash at home to pay the worker who wants to be paid daily wages. I am dependent on those who take sugarcane in lieu of wages. Mostly, there are women and old people. Hiring a tractor to transport the cane is a problem. Some farmers have money and they can take help from the Gramin Bank, but small farmers like me, who do not have a bank account, are at a loss. Where do we go for help? And if we do not send our harvest quickly, it will rot.”

Removed from the world of ATMs

Masuri, though only 40 kilometres from New Delhi, is far removed from the world of ATMs and banks. The village gets electricity for four to six hours a day. There is no water connection and almost all roads are unpaved. Only elementary means of public transport, including buffalo carts, are available. It is moneylenders who lend to people here. “People could get small loans at 3 per cent interest for three months earlier. Now it is 5 per cent,” says Ahmed.

Some 40 km further ahead on NH 24 is an agricultural belt known for its mustard cultivation. The “cash bomb”, as a villager puts it, could not have been more ill-timed. Says Shamsuddin of Okar village, 18 km off Aligarh: “This is the time to sow mustard. If we delay it even by a couple of weeks, there will be no crop as mustard has to be harvested around February-March. But most farmers in the village have no money to procure manure. Most of us had got seeds. Some 15-20 per cent has sowed the seeds. Those who did not buy them earlier are the worst affected.”

Sher Mohammed of the same village looks at the pradhan (village chief) for help. “He is our gaon bhai [village brother]. We are Muslims; he is a Chauhan. But in our village he is a brother to everyone. He has helped many small farmers with money from the Gramin Bank, but how many can he help? We need cash to buy seeds, manure, everything. The fields are dug up.”

But it is not just rapeseed or mustard farmers who are affected. “Uttar Pradesh is the largest wheat-producing State [in India]. Yahan se zyada gehun kahin nahin milta [no place produces more than this], not even Punjab,” he claims. Indeed, last year, Uttar Pradesh reported the production of 300 lakh tonnes of wheat, whereas in Punjab it was 164 lakh tonnes.

The problems for wheat farmers, it turns out, are similar to those of other farmers except that they have a window of a couple of weeks. “Wheat can be grown well into late November, early December. So if the farmers can somehow get money for seed and manure, the crop can be saved. Otherwise, they too will be like us. You travel across Uttar Pradesh and you will find farmers in distress. Our Prime Minister went to Mahoba, but he did not come here.” Mahoba, incidentally, has reported many suicides by farmers because of successive droughts. Narendra Modi preferred to talk of triple talaq there rather than addressing the problems of farmers.

It is not very different for those into lentil sowing —chickpea, gram and green gram. “If lentil cultivation is not normal or above normal, dal rates will go up in the next six months or so. The agrarian distress which the media do not know of is for real,” says Dr Saurabh Tiwari from Gajraula. “We have had instances where small farmers have come to my clinic looking for work, even a sweeper’s work. Things have come to such a pass that a landowner is ready to work on another person’s land if he can get cash at the end of the day.”

Rampur, the fiefdom of Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan, is no different. Here much of the sugarcane has been harvested. However, the farmers involved in wheat and mustard cultivation are in trouble. Their plight is compounded by the absence of daily wagers because of the government’s decision to ban Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes. “These men used to stay in the fields at night. At times in one room, five-six people used to sleep in the middle of our fields and help out with irrigation. Others would hire a room above a garage or a mechanic’s shop nearby. They used to help out in the fields and do odd jobs. However, when they were not paid for three-four days, they went back to their villages as the poor live on daily earnings,” says Sultan Ali Khan, a relatively well-off farmer who has multiple business interests. “For these poor people from Swar, Tanda and Shahbad, Rampur is a city where they can earn their daily bread. Now local farmers have no cash to pay them. Hence, the movement back home.”

Will their life be easier back home? “Cannot say. After all, they migrate because of poverty in their villages,” says Sultan Ali Khan.

In Hardoi near Lucknow, where wheat and potato are sowed around this time, local moneylenders are making a killing. The interest charged depends on the need of the farmer; the more acute the need, the higher the rate. “Some have been charging as much as 10 per cent since the money demonetisation. Earlier the rate was 5 to 7 per cent.”

The farmers in Hardoi were used to an informal banking system. That is, the most popular or the richest farmer takes a big loan from a bank and gives a share of it to smaller farmers at a slightly higher rate. This rate has never been exploitative, and the farmers were happy to pay the amount at the time of harvest. It is different now. “It is each to his own. Some farmers go to Lucknow to get loans. Others fall back on their relatives and friends. Still others mortgage their jewellery. But everyone urgently needs money for sowing and manure. Ploughing is going on. We cannot wait for seeds,” says Rishipal.

“The government has sought 50 days. We would be ruined much before that. But does a farmer’s problem bother anyone at all?” he asks.

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