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Jhabua on its way to becoming Vidarbha-II?

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A farmer sprays pesticide, Larvaene, in a soyabean field without any protection gear.
A farmer sprays pesticide, Larvaene, in a soyabean field without any protection gear.

Mahim Pratap Singh

With shift to a high-input cash cropping system, the debt process bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘catastrophe’

JHABUA (MADHYA PRADESH): If it does not rain over the next week, farmers of Petlawad tehsil and its neighbouring regions in Jhabua might have to go the same way as their brethren in Vidarbha did.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan recently declared Jhabua, along with 36 other districts, drought-hit.

The agricultural apparatus in Jhabua is choking under the same processes that led to the ‘Vidarbha catastrophe.’

These include a shift from pulses, coarse grain and oilseed dominated organic and semi-organic farming to a high-input cash cropping system, a vicious debt-cycle with a simultaneous decline in cattle population and an agricultural landscape dotted with BT cotton crop.

Add to this, “a good drought” looming large and the result will mean small and marginal farmers running short of options in the event of a crop failure.

Failure of BT cotton crop

“Like most other farmers, I opted for BT-1 and BT-2, the latter I still grow,” says Mangal, a farmer from Thikariya village, “The companies promised a 25 quintals output. I managed 3 quintals. Others had much less. It didn’t even cover the production costs.”

By the time the farmers learnt that all was not hunky dory with this much advertised “white gold,” they were knee-deep in debt, as almost the entire agricultural production process in this region runs on non-institutional credit.

The only option they had, in order to pay their debts, was to move to other water-intensive cash crops such as tomato, chilli and soyabean along with BT-2. However, by this time, the region, like the rest of the State, was reeling under water and power crises. When the BT revolution practically failed and some farmers decided to question the multi-national corporations that sold it, they were offered bribes and issued threats.

“Officials from a major multi-national seed firm [Monsanto] came to my house and offered me a bike, and then Rs.70,000 to keep quiet,” says Ranchhod Laal, a farmer from Timariya village.

The debt process

Seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are usually provided by local shopkeepers on credit through middlemen who have mushroomed in these times of agricultural crisis.

“Ninety nine per cent of our transactions are on credit,” says Mukesh Chaudhary, owner of a pesticide shop. “Sales have increased since 1999. People buy more fertilizers to get a larger produce from their small land holdings,” he adds.

Farmers in Jhabua use about 600 kg of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other related products per hectare of land. Chaudhary puts this figure even higher, at 700-800 kg.

These products, however, come with a rider. They are provided at 200 to 300 per cent higher prices than the original cost, and at a compound interest of around 24 - 48 per cent annually, by either the shopkeeper or the local moneylender.

The estimated percentage of non-institutional debt is over 60 per cent of the total debt. Next, come loans from acquaintances, followed by cooperative societies and banks. The much celebrated Self Help Groups make up for the smallest percentage of loans availed by villagers in Jhabua.

So, when the State government waived a Rs. 60-crore loan taken by farmers here under an ill-designed and unsuccessful lift irrigation scheme, it hardly offered any respite, it was only 35 - 40 per cent of the debt the farmers were reeling under.

In Lalaroondi, where the combined annual income of all families of the village is Rs.5,02,997, the combined annual debt stands at Rs.16,07,200. For Kaajbi, these figures are Rs.13,93,234 and Rs.63,29,558 respectively. There are similar figures for other villages of the district. Per capita debt, at Rs.35,000 approximately, is the highest in Semlaapaara village.

‘Arrey, they are poor farmers’

Government officials, however, totally negate the living experiences of the farmers.

“No no, what are you talking about?” asks Sunil Dube, DDA, Jhabua district. “Farmers still grow traditional crops like urad. They do not have money to buy chemical fertilizers and cash crop seeds,” he contends.

But do they buy these on credit? Dube does not think so. “Arrey, they are poor farmers. Who will give them credit? They are not even creditworthy,” he says with conviction.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government, in its Assembly election manifesto, dedicated an entire page promising to make Madhya Pradesh an “organic state.” Almost a year later, these promises have translated merely into half-hearted training programmes.

“When the government promoted GM farming and chemical pesticides, did it reduce its efforts to training programs only?” asks Nilesh Desai, a local activist leading the fight against the proliferation of GM farming. “Government officials still keep visiting local farmers, encouraging them to take to cash-cropping,” he says.

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