Government-nurtured neglect, and the backlash of economic reform policies put farmers in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, already in the grip of drought, in deep distress.
BY this time of the year, the members of Kusumram Thorat's family should have been busy harvesting their field. But instead of reaping sheaves of grain, they are literally clutching at straws, and uprooting dry weeds. Also, the Thorat family may have to keep its field fallow during the rabi (winter time) season for "there is no money to buy seeds". Kusumram, whose husband shares 10 acres (4 hectares) with another farmer in Massa village, Kalamb taluka in Osmanabad, says: "We spent Rs.15,000 on the last kharif (monsoon) crop, but no rain fell for more than two months. We did not even get a kilogram of grain from the land." The drought that has hit 12 of Maharashtra's 30 districts has dealt a blow to small farmers and landless farm workers in 16,000-odd rain-scarce villages, who were already facing a threat to their livelihood. This year's kharif crop loss in the State, as estimated by Agriculture Minister Rohidas Patil, is Rs.5,707 crores. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's home turf (Latur is his home town) seems orphaned as the second year of drought in the Marathwada region kicks in.
But it is not just the drought. Farmers have also had to face the backlash of reform policies. Over the last decade, these policies have eroded agricultural profitability and increased debt, leaving peasants even more vulnerable in times of crisis.
The immediate effects of the drought are apparent. Kalidas Bansode, a landless agricultural labourer from Gangapur village in Latur, has had work for only four days in the last two months. Normally, he and his wife would get work for at least 15 days a month and earn Rs.2,000. "Farmers don't have money to employ us. I've had to borrow Rs.500 every month from the moneylender just to buy grain. I don't know if I will ever be able to repay them," he says.
While several people have migrated to cities like Pune and Mumbai, some are reluctant to leave their fields. Even the annual migration to work in the large sugar mills of western Maharashtra after Deepavali may not prove as lucrative as in earlier years. "This year, fewer contractors will come to hire people. The sugarcane has not grown enough," says youth activist Sanjay More from Latur. Since workers are paid per tonne of cane cut, the bad crop means that their wages will be less. Some sugar mills have started using cane-cutting machines and so they do not need as many workers, he says.
Farm workers are anticipating work from the last resort - the State's Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), which provides employment in public works programmes. However, the government is yet to start any work. "Even if it did, the contractors would get the work done by machines, falsify labour records and 'swallow' our wages." Yet the Government says that 2.35 lakh workers in Maharashtra are currently employed under the scheme, of whom 47,000 are in Osmanabad. This year the government has added a food-for-work component to the scheme, providing 2 kg of grain a week to every worker. The ration system has also collapsed, thanks to subsidy cuts. Food quotas have shrunk and prices have risen to almost the same level as market rates, making them unaffordable for the poor.
Even drinking water is in short supply. The shortage is likely to become more acute in the coming months as water sources dry out. The Majra dam, which supplies water to three districts, is virtually empty. In Latur city, municipal water is supplied only once every four days. However, Latur District Collector Rajiv Jalota hopes that the recent rain would improve the situation.
With grazing land all dried up and the region already in the grip of an acute fodder shortage, farmers have resorted to distress sale of cattle. "Cows worth Rs.20,000 are now being sold for Rs.2,000. A pendi (bundle) of fodder which used to cost Rs.1.50, now costs Rs.12," says Pandurang Rathod from Beed district. The State government claims to have set up cattle camps with the help of non-governmental organisations. However, people from Osmanabad and Latur say that no camp has been set up in their districts. "Even if they existed, we wouldn't take our cattle there. They may catch an infection from the other cattle. The government should instead give us money directly for the purchase of fodder," says Satish Parihar from Mandwa village in Osmanabad.
Opportunities for the youth have been crushed. Many of them have dropped out of college owing to the cash crunch. "In one of the six colleges here, attendance has fallen by 10 per cent, which means that 270 students have dropped out," estimates Prof. Arun Shirke, a college teacher in Kalamb. Dattatrey Deshmukh, a first year B.A. student from Mandwa, is one of those who have not been to college for over a month. He cannot afford the Rs.250 monthly bus pass to Kalamb town. "There is no work here. So I am leaving to join my brother who is working in Pune. We have to repay our debts," he says.
It would be myopic to view the problem as that of scarcity of rain. Underlying the distress caused by the drought are changes in the agrarian economy that have made peasants more insecure than they already were. The liberalisation programme of the 1990s has hurt agriculture affecting productivity and profitability. Prices of farm inputs have multiplied following the withdrawal of subsidies. At the same time, market prices for farm produce have fallen or remained stagnant, partly due to the lifting of import restrictions. The government's attempts to cut expenditure on rural infrastructure have affected the farmers adversely. Rural credit has been shrinking, rather than expanding to meet the growing needs of farmers.
"What drought," asks A.J. Magar, branch manager of the Osmanabad district Central Cooperative Bank at Massa. "It's not just this year. There's a drought here every year, all through the year." The economic condition of the farmers is getting worse with each passing day. While costs are spiralling, they do not get fair prices for their produce, he says.
The cost of chemical fertilizers has increased fourfold, and power charges have tripled in the last 10 years due to the withdrawal of subsidies, says Ashok Dhavale, general secretary of the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha. While cultivation costs rise by 10 per cent to 25 per cent every year, the quantum of crop loans from the bank increases by only up to 1.5 per cent, Magar says.
M.G. Marwaha, executive director of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), endorses this. "The funds requirement of agriculture is not being met adequately. Credit has not increased on par with inflation. Moreover, rural banks cater to only 30 per cent of the farmers," Marwaha points out. The rest borrow from moneylenders.
Ahida Imani of Mandwa owns 4 acres of land, but has a debt of Rs.46,000. "Banks don't give enough to meet the rising costs, so moneylenders are prospering. During this drought, they know that people are desperate, so some have hiked their interest rates from the previous 120 per cent per year to 180 per cent." Others like Balaji Shinde with 2 acres of land in Gangapur village, Latur, have not borrowed at all. He used up all his savings of Rs.4,000 to buy seeds and fertilizers.
The State government dismisses the need to compensate drought-affected farmers by assuring them that the losses will be covered by the Central government's crop insurance scheme. But most farmers are extremely sceptical. "I'm still waiting for last year's compensation. Since they haven't deposited it into my bank account, I couldn't get a bank loan this year, as my previous loan remains unpaid," says Ahida Imani.
Magar says that farmers have not received last year's compensation. "Even if they do get it, it will be only 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the actual loss."
Pointing to the flaws in the scheme, Ravindra Bhausa, a Kisan Sabha activist from Jalgaon, says, "This scheme is designed for insurance companies to make money. Their method of calculating crop damage is entirely flawed. The people who have framed this scheme do not know the basics of agriculture." For example, the scheme only compensates a farmer if a drought is declared in his entire district circle. If only one or two villages in that district have lost their crop, they are not entitled to compensation. The statistics seem to prove his point. During the rabi season in 1999-2000, the premium of Rs.1.38 crores collected in Maharashtra was more than the compensation (Rs.73 lakhs) awarded. Moreover, according to the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2000-2001, only 11 lakhs of the State's 94.7 lakh farmers are covered under the scheme.
Apart from erratic insurance companies, banks and rapacious moneylenders, farmers have also to contend with traders. At the local market at Kalamb, a small group of traders have the upper hand. Farmers leave their produce on the floor and stand aside, while traders inspect the grain and bid over the price. "We have no say in the price of our own produce. It's all in their hands. There isn't much competitive bidding. They have already agreed on a price among themselves. It's all fixed," says Ramchandra Base, who came to Kalamb with the few remains from his 40-acre field. He adds that even if there was a good monsoon, he might have suffered losses. "We're not getting fair prices for our produce." Two years ago, he sold jowar for Rs.1,000 a quintal, now the rate is Rs.500 to Rs.600. Similarly, the rate of urad dal, which was Rs.2,800 a quintal, is now Rs.1,800, he points out. The solution, feels Rajiv Jalota, lies in forming marketing cooperatives to counter the monopoly grip of traders. Monopoly traders apart, prices are falling in line with world commodity prices as the economy opens up to international markets, and imports are rising.
Added to decline in profitability has been a fall in productivity. During the 1990s, the national growth rate of agricultural production came down from 3.72 per cent to 2.35 per cent. For foodgrains, the decline was even steeper - from 3.54 per cent to 1.8 per cent, according to the mid-term appraisal of the Ninth Five Year Plan. The appraisal attributes this fall to declining government investment in agriculture. The share of the public sector in agricultural investment fell from 19.1 per cent in 1979-80 to 9.4 per cent in 1996-97 to 6.3 per cent in 1997-98. This, when two-thirds of India's population is engaged in agriculture.
Whatever little rural infrastructure exists is skewed in favour of the large farmers. They get the larger chunk of bank credit and most of the irrigation facilities. For example, only 15.4 per cent of Maharashtra's farmland is irrigated. But of this, 60 per cent is used for sugarcane cultivation, which covers only 2 per cent of the land, and is mainly controlled by the rich and politically powerful farmers, points out Ashok Dhavale.
Scratch the surface and you can see that the problem does not lie with nature alone. It is government-nurtured neglect. The drought was merely the last straw that broke the farmer's back.