Abhishek Patidar, 19, had just passed his Class 11 exam this year with dreams of becoming a doctor. His family owns a piece of land — about 27 bighas — in Barkheda Path, a village 22 km north of Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh where they grow soybean, methi (fenugreek) and chana (gram). On June 6, Abhishek went to Mandsaur along with hundreds of others from his village to protest against the falling crop prices that were pushing his family to the brink of desperation. Tragically, he became one of the victims of police firing, taking three bullets on a day when farmer protests across the western belt stretching from Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra reached a frenzied pitch. “He was too young but was keen to join the protest. We grow everything in our 27-bigha land but in the last three years, prices have plunged and ruined us,” says Abhishek’s father, Dinesh Patidar, 55, tears rolling down his eyes.
Price pinch in Malwa
Barkheda Path is typical of the villages in this region. With an approximate population of 3,500, 95% of the population is engaged in farming in landholdings that are less than a hectare per family. Abhishek’s family members narrate their tale of loss. “The last three years have crushed our backbone because prices have plunged, forcing us to sell our produce at rates where we don’t even recover our investment,” says Dinesh, adding, “today’s market price for soybean is ₹2,500-2,700 per quintal while our cost to produce one quintal is above ₹3,000.” Not only soybean, prices of onion, gram, methi , vegetables, milk have bottomed while input costs have soared for seeds, fertilizers, labour and transport, he says.
Madhya Pradesh consistently boasts of double-digit growth in agriculture — averaging 13.9% during 2010-15 — and like many other States, had a bumper harvest following a good monsoon in 2016. Yet as per the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, as many as 1,982 farmers committed suicide in the State in 2016-17. A combination of factors — falling procurement prices because of a glut of produce in the market, a cash crunch due to last year’s demonetisation policy and the predominance of smaller landholdings which are expensive to maintain — have led to a simmering anger. Like their counterparts in many parts of Maharashtra, farmers in Mandsaur launched an agitation demanding remunerative prices for their onion, soybean and pulses. As thousands of farmers poured onto the streets, stopping traffic, attacking trucks and confronting police, things turned violent and five farmers were killed as a result of police firing and a curfew was imposed across five districts.
Farmers from the Mandsaur-Neemuch stretch in the Malwa region, aside from growing soybean and chana, also grow a range of spices and medicinal plants like methi , dhaniya (coriander), jeera (cumin) and ajwain (carom seeds). Yet, farmers in the region claim that prices for these cash crops have been falling for the past few years. “We never sold methi below ₹4,000 per quintal during the Manmohan Singh’s government. But ever since Modi became PM, methi prices have collapsed,” says Dinesh, showing methi gunny bags stored in his house.
In addition to low prices, what has aggravated the situation is the Central government’s demonetisation move late last year that has adversely hit the rural and agrarian economy. “ Notebandi has almost finished us in the rural areas. Even after selling our produce, we don’t get money in our hands before at least two-three weeks and sometimes even a month,” says Lalchand Mali, a farmer from Barkheda Panth.
Interestingly, not many farmers in the region are seeking loan waiver as is being claimed in the media. Most of them want better and remunerative prices that cover their costs and provide them income for survival. “Believe me, no true farmer would want loan waiver. If the government provides better prices, we will repay our debt. The problem is the government never provides better prices,” adds Lalchand, who owns a two-hectare plot in the village.
The Maharashtra stir
In the town of Niphad in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, the main vegetable market, located in a large yard opposite the tehsil office, lies deserted. In a series of godowns that lie adjacent to the yard there is a pink gleam as sunlight filters through to large sacks of onions that are waiting to be transported. In Vittal Sanap’s godown, which is nearly packed to capacity with produce, a large truck with a tarpaulin cover has been parked inside for three days even as workers go about their usual task of loading onions into bright red sacks.
“We had an order for onions to go to Madras (Chennai) a few days back but the truck was accosted on the road before it could get to Nashik and all the onions were dumped on the road,” says Sanap. Onions that are left at the mercy of the elements lose their value almost immediately, so for now Sanap is just waiting for things to tide over. “The hartal (strike) will have to end soon because there are many farmers who have no choice but to sell their goods even if prices are bad.”
Onions and other vegetables from godowns like Sanap’s go to the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) market in Nashik from where they are taken to other cities in Maharashtra like Mumbai and Pune as well as to other States in the south like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and even Sri Lanka. The APMC market in Nashik is appropriately mammoth — on either side of a dusty road are two large open halls, each the size of a large bus terminus with tall pillars running right through. On June 8, a day after the one-week strike called by farmers in the region officially ended, a small group of women have set up shop to sell vegetables like cabbage, chillies, tomatoes and cucumber. They take up barely a quarter of one hall but as produce is brought in by farmers in smaller trucks, there are murmurs of anger outside with some arguments breaking out as the produce is passed inside. “These women are not from Maharashtra, you can tell from their earrings that they are from Rajasthan. These are just small local farmers who want to break the strike,” says one of the men. Still, even these small traces of activity raise the suspicion that divisions are beginning to form in what was till now a unified movement in the district.
United in adversity
As the major commercial supplier in this region, Nashik may have become the epicentre of the farmers’ movement but it all started in a village called Puntamba in Ahmednagar district three months ago on April 3, when the village’s gram panchayat passed a resolution warning of a ‘Shetkari Sampa’ (Strike of the Ryots) from June 1. Their charter of demands addressed to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis included ensuring crop procurement prices at least 50% above production costs, a complete waiver of farm loans, 100% subsidy on drip/sprinkler irrigation systems, and a minimum milk purchase price of ₹50.
Farmers across the region may find a specific resonance in one or the other of these demands but what seems to have really helped the movement spread from Puntamba across the Nashik-Ahmednagar-Pune stretch of Maharashtra is the language in which the idea of the strike was communicated. “Farmers face many hardships but this was the first time I’ve seen farmers actually willing to go on strike to and risk everything to see that they are given some recognition,” says Abhijit Dige, who owns an eight-acre farm about 60 km from Nashik. “Politicians don’t know what farmers go through, it’s not like other businesses. Devendra Fadnavis should come and work in the field for 14 hours a day, work at night in the cold to tend to onion crops, and then maybe he’ll understand,” he says.
That same sentiment is echoed by Deepak Rane who has a one-acre farm just off Niphad where he grows cauliflower. “The strike should not stop because people don’t realise what we go through. I am not able to recover the cost that I bear to treat my crops with chemicals and fertilizers. I work from 6 in the morning; what is it all for?” he says.
“People from all walks of life face hardships but have you ever considered why it is only farmer suicides you have heard of?” asks Dinesh Nikam, another trader in Nashik who has refused to take orders for onions and other vegetables because he says he stands in solidarity with the farmers.
The illusion of prosperity
When farm distress was first reported in Maharashtra, it focussed mainly on the prices of tur and arhar dal and the difficulties faced by farmers in the drought-prone Marathwada and Amaravati regions. After two years of consecutive drought, a good monsoon in 2016 brought in a bountiful harvest and the markets were simply swamped with produce. Record harvests were offset by a steep fall in procurement prices for both crops.
The plight of those farmers is often referenced by prominent leaders of the movement in Nashik and Ahmednagar though it has to be noted that this region is substantially different. The stretch from Ahmednagar to Nashik, and down to Kolhapur and Sangli where the movement spread is a fairly contiguous belt that is home to relatively more prosperous farmers. The majority of farmers in the region over the past two decades have moved from cultivation of crops like bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum) to cash crops like grapes and onions. Many have invested in dairy farming (Puntamba, for instance, is home to many dairy farmers).
Vegetables, then, are actually only a small part of the produce from this region and while the enduring visual images of the strike may be of vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage being dumped on the road, there are many places where people show us pictures shot on cell phones of roads lined with pomegranates, which is the most recent entry to the crop market here.
In Nitaley, for instance, a village about 10 km from Niphad that was the one of the centres of the agitation, Swarupananda Bhorgade says that about 80% of the village of 5,000-odd farmers is involved in grape farming, sometimes done in rotation with onions. “I have been growing grapes for the last 20 years and till about seven or eight years ago I used to sell it for about ₹50 a kilo,” says Bhorgade. “So it was only natural that I planted grapes on every inch of my 15 acres. Now it costs me about ₹15 to harvest a kilo of grapes and all I can get on the market is ₹9 to ₹18 a kilo,” he says.
Bhorgade attributes this to a number of factors, the most important of which is ‘climate’ — storms would come unseasonably and the crops would be destroyed. Or there would be hailstorms. This past year, the weather was regular and the crop was good for once but there is no price. “You have to take into account how much we have spent on growing these crops and how we will recover it. It costs a lot to invest in crops like grapes and pomegranates,” he says, adding that farmers from the region initially tried to rope in their counterparts from Amaravati who grew tur dal but their situation was completely different. “They have larger landholdings and their crop is rain-fed. They don’t have to spend on irrigation and other chemicals and fertilizer like we do.”
On June 3, a faction of farmer leaders decided to call off the strike after Mr. Fadnavis announced a partial loan waiver for small and marginal farmers that would come into effect on October 31. In a large meeting on June 8 in Nashik that included about 3,000 farmers and 150 representatives of farmer associations from across the State, that compromise was rejected. “The people who met the Chief Minister did so late at night without anybody knowing and the agreement was not along the lines of what we were originally demanding,” said Raju Shetti, president of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana that has taken a major role in advancing the agenda. If the government did not accede to the demand to waive all loans immediately and bump up procurement prices, the meeting decided that the strike would move to a new phase of hartals across district and collectors offices from June 12 and ‘rail rokos ’ in some areas. As of June 8, the meeting concluded that farmers should be allowed to take their produce to the market in order to meet their minimum needs. “Look for Puntamba on that day (June 12),” says one of the farmers who attended the meeting. “The first rail roko will be there, where it all started.”