Distress in abundance

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Pulses, including tur dal, displayed in a shop in Mumbai in this June 27, 2016, picture. Prices had then doubled nationwide following a fall in domestic production. Photo: LEVIN RAJU

Low prices following a bumper crop and the State government’s inability to procure much of the yield leave tur farmers in Maharashtra in a quandary.

DROUGHT or abundance, farmers seem to be perpetually doomed in Maharashtra. The most recent crisis unfolding in the agrarian segment is the crashing prices of pulses, particularly tur dal, and the inability of the State government to procure the entire crop. Adding to the problem is the decrease in import duties and a continued ban on tur exports. These have begun to take a toll on farmers.

Maharashtra is the largest tur dal producer in the country and has, therefore, been hit hard, particularly the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. Farmers and agriculture experts in the State say that if tur is not procured within the next few months, it can lead to serious problems in an already distressed rural economy.

In a belated move, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis appealed to the Centre to extend the deadline for procurement at the minimum support price (MSP) to the last week of April, but the Centre refused. Following this, he announced a Rs.1,000-crore package for the beleaguered farmers and promised complete procurement. Unfortunately for the State, this move, while giving some respite, came a tad late. According to informed sources, most farmers have sold their crop to traders at extremely low prices to get rid of their stock. In fact, they said, the Centre refused to extend the deadline because it believed it was traders and not farmers who were selling the stock to it.

Boosting cultivation

Here is the irony and an indicator of how poorly the farmer is treated. As a result of consecutive years of drought, farmers in Maharashtra mainly involved in cash crops such as sugarcane and cotton were encouraged by the State government to grow pulses, especially tur, which do not require substantial rainfall. Many farmers increased the area under tur cultivation. A good monsoon in 2016 led to a record production of 20.35 lakh tonnes. However, instead of reaping the benefits, farmers saw prices crash owing to the abundance and the government decision to halt buying at an early date as procurement targets were quickly met.

According to the State Department of Agriculture, the area under pulses increased by 30 per cent in 2015-16. The department had estimated the tur yield at about 11.70 lakh tonnes this year. But the bumper crop resulted in chaos in the procurement process and distress among farmers.

Before 2015, the production of tur was low and the rate had risen to Rs.12,000 a quintal, causing a different type of distress, said S. Narwade, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Tuljapur in Marathwada. The government began to import tur to reduce prices and simultaneously urged farmers to increase the area under cultivation of pulses. “Unfortunately, a combination of factors has led to the current crisis,” Narwade said. Large imports, which the Centre refuses to reduce, have warped the policy on tur cultivation, he added.

“We also believe the Centre via NAFED [National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Limited], the main procurement agency, was given certain targets. The procurement begins from western Maharashtra and moves east towards Vidarbha, which harvests in February, the end of the season. Perhaps the targets had been met early as the crop had been so successful. They did not have the resources by the time procurement reached Vidarbha,” Narwade said.

“The Centre’s target for all pulse procurement is 10 lakh tonnes. Within this, five to six lakh tonnes is tur. Maharashtra this year had overshot the target by many times,” said Yogesh Thorat of the Maharashtra Farmers Producers Company (MAHAFPC), also a procurement agency. “Mistakes in supply chain management and the huge stocks were largely responsible for the problem. Additionally, the government should not have assured farmers it would pick up the entire stock. It just could not have happened when the target itself was so low,” Thorat added.

Owing to the fluctuation in the prices of pulses, the Agriculture Ministry decided this year that it would keep a buffer stock similar to what is done with wheat and rice. Unfortunately, because the yield was so high, the machinery has been unable to store the crop, leading to farmers holding too much, Thorat said. “The only positive in the crisis is that the prices of pulses have stabilised to some extent.”

Big let-down

The Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, which were badly hit earlier and witnessed the largest number of farmer suicides, account for 80 per cent of the tur produced in the State. “It is unfortunate that these regions are facing another severe crisis. We had hoped the days of the farmers would look bright with high tur production after three years of drought,” said an activist working for a non-governmental organisation in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha.

“There was a feeling of a substitute for sugarcane having been found. However, this is a big let-down for the farmers, especially after being encouraged so aggressively to grow tur. The rural economy, already reeling from demonetisation, will see severe consequences this year. People have no money in their hands,” he added.

Until April 22, the deadline set by the government to buy tur, only about four lakh tonnes had been purchased at an MSP of Rs.5,050 a quintal, a rate fixed by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP) for 2016-17, which is 9.2 per cent more than the previous year.

The remaining 16 lakh tonnes has yet to be bought and farmers are selling in distress at anywhere between Rs.3,600 and Rs.4,200 a quintal, incurring substantial losses. “The ideal price would be Rs.7,000 a quintal as that is the approximate cost of cultivating a quintal,” said Sunil Jadhav, who owns five acres (two hectares) in the Amravati belt of Vidarbha. “We expected much more in the MSP but now we are not getting even that.”

“I harvested 20 quintals this year, and because the quota for procurement was over by the time we harvested I still have the entire crop,” said Nikhil Ingole from Ralegaon village in Yavatmal.

“The traders are offering a little over Rs.3,000 a quintal. I spent Rs.30,000 on cultivating tur. If I sell 20 quintals at Rs.3,000 each, I shall earn Rs.60,000, which is just double what I spent. We were assured we would be given at least four times our expenses. Now I am at the mercy of traders,” he added.

However, an Agriculture Department official said procurement suffered because a sizable portion of the crop did not meet the government’s standards to be eligible for the MSP.

Farmers cannot hold on to stock for long, so they sell to private buyers at lower prices as they need the money ahead of the kharif sowing, which begins in June.

The official also said that under the “per drop more crop” policy floated in 2014-15, both the Centre and the State government appealed to farmers to shift from cash crops such as sugar and cotton. Pulses consume less water, the expenses on fertilizers and pesticides are lower, and electricity consumption is less; more importantly, the product commands a good price.

Interestingly, tur was among the crops grown in plenty in Maharashtra before sugarcane and cotton were introduced in colonial times. Jowar, bajra and groundnut are the others. These crops are known to require less water and enriching the soil with nitrogen. Over time, tur became the “plan B” on which farmers depended if and when sugar or cotton failed.

The decrease in tur production had recently led to record prices for the final processed tur dal, a staple in Indian food. In 2016, it was close to Rs.200 a kilogram. Currently, it retails at Rs.100-130 a kg.