Debt and devastation

Print edition : February 07, 1998

WHERE agricultural extension services were inadequate, pesticide dealers stepped in to fill the vacuum. They took on the role of "pest management advisers", extended credit to farmers, sold spurious pesticides made by fly-by-night companies, charged higher rates than prevailing prices for them, and recommended the application of excessive doses of these pesticides. According to Shalini Mishra, District Collector, Warangal, one dealer gave Rs. 4 crores in credit to farmers. The Collector, showing a list of dealers suspected to be selling adulterated pesticides, admitted that the official machinery was ill-equipped to punish them. By the time the reports on the samples sent to Hyderabad for analysis arrived, she said, a dealer could clear his stocks.

Dr. Y. Sivaji, Member, Central Cotton Advisory Board, told Frontline that many pesticides sold in the market fell short of the required 10 per cent concentration of chemicals.

Cotton cultivators were caught in a vicious cycle. They needed instant pest killers to save the crop, and they were ready to invest heavily; they even borrowed money for this purpose. However, what they bought were spurious pesticides that landed them in deeper distress. To meet the heavy demand for pesticides, two to three outlets were opened in every village, most of them selling the toxic methomyl. Methomyl, used as a bait for pests, instead killed parasites and predators - rats, frogs, snakes and birds that preyed on the pests. Dealers are reported to have sold record quantities of methomyl this year. The spurious pesticides were mostly produced by Guntur-based companies.

Despite the crores of rupees that have been spent on karshak sadassus (farmers' conferences), which Opposition parties have called a publicity gimmick of Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, public agricultural extension services have not educated farmers adequately on the appropriate use of chemical pesticides. "The credibility and communication skills of officials have been so low that farmers never took them seriously," said a scientist. In addition, neither the cotton research centre proposed by the State Government five years ago nor the krishi vigyan kendra promised by the Centre in 1994 has materialised.

In normal years, cotton yields are between six and 10 quintals an acre (between 15 and 25 quintals a hectare), spread over four or five pickings. If the market price is Rs. 2,000 a quintal, a farmer can look forward to a gross income of Rs. 12,000 to Rs. 20,000 per acre per crop. But farmers' household economies were a shambles this year when yields fell by 40 to 50 per cent (with only two to three pickings), market prices fell to Rs. 1,700 a quintal, and costs went up.

In the Warangal cotton market yard, the dice is heavily loaded against farmers. In order to avoid boarding costs and minimise hire charges for bullock carts, farmers sell their cotton immediately. The Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) and the State Government's MARKFED (Federation of Cooperative Marketing Societies) have been of little help. Even after the crisis became full-blown, the CCI did not procure cotton, ignoring the Government's request to purchase 30 per cent of the arrivals at Rs. 2,100 a quintal. Both these organisations are reluctant to bail out the farmers; their stand is that they are commercial and not welfare organisations.

Commercial and cooperative banks were also of little help in the present crisis. They refused to give loans on liberal terms because of poor recoveries. As a result, 90 per cent of farmers' borrowings came from private moneylenders. Warangal district has a Rs. 80-crore annual credit plan aimed at helping small and marginal peasants, who account for 70 per cent of the six lakh farmers. The District Collector, however, said she had serious doubts about whether this amount was actually disbursed this year.

Resentment is running high among farmers. This correspondent had a close view of the discontent when farmers in Nagaram village virtually mobbed a scientist belonging to the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University. "Your suggestions are of no use to us after the crop has been destroyed by pests and many farmers have committed suicide," shouted Raji Reddy, a cotton farmer. Other farmers realise the futility of giving vent to their anger in this way.

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