Farmers' distress has been “official” for at least ten years now, with no sign of let-up. Low prices, shortage and high cost of inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and power continue, but they have become “old movies”; the new latest movie is called “crop holiday”.

When people usually go on a holiday it means they are a happy lot; but when paddy belt farmers in AP declared a crop holiday it was full of pathos: short of committing suicide, they went on strike; they downed their tools, blocked the irrigation channels and declared ‘enough is enough; we cannot afford any more losses; we will not cultivate this season'.

In other parts of AP, farmers are on undeclared crop holiday. Crop holiday in the paddy belt of AP has become news because paddy is a major cereal crop for all of India, and secondly, the farmers there are influential. In other parts of AP such as Chittoor district where I come from, farmers who grow crops other than paddy don't make news. Migration and fallowing of crop lands is the norm today rather than an exception.

Dryland farming of millets, pulses and oilseeds are being given up, because of uncertainty of rains, yields as well as prices. Paddy is being given up because of uncertainty of water and power. Cultivation of vegetables for home/local consumption is being given up because there would be a net loss, unless you grow vegetables for the market year after year, so that losses in one season may be recovered in another season. Dairying is being given up because low yielders are a net loss.

Farmers reason like this: Why go to so much trouble and losses trying to produce them? Just manage somehow with rations from the PDS — rice, palm oil and pulses and sugar — which meet some of your requirements, and for the rest, get them from the market.

MANGO DISASTER

To make matters worse, the government has, during the last few years, promoted massive plantation of mango trees in AP as part of NREGA, without giving any thought to forward and backward linkages, markets and prices. (The same applies to other seasonal fruit crops.) This year, even with a lean crop, the mandis were flooded with mangoes and the prices plummeted.

The factories which convert mangoes into pulp and juice cartelised and refused to raise the price, citing a sluggish export market and unsold stocks from last year. So the honeymoon with mangoes is now over. Except that the farmers are stuck with the mango trees! Once you plant perennial tree-crops such as mango, the land and crops cannot be changed with the rise and fall in prices — unlike the annual-seasonal crops such as paddy, millets, pulses, vegetables, which are of short duration, so crop change is possible, at least in principle.

Also the crops which can be consumed everyday — cereals, pulses, vegetables and oils — have a steady market throughout the year, even without state support; but how much mango can you consume in a year?

So why are the farmers going for mango instead of the other crops? Simple: year-on-year losses in growing everyday crops such as paddy and pulses. So, in desperation, they keep trying out different crops. Rush to where subsidies are being offered. There was a subsidy for planting mango under the NREGA, so they all rushed there. Now there is a subsidy for growing maize, they are queuing up there.

The other reason: organisationally, perennial tree crops are relatively easy to handle; once planted the operations are less; and one doesn't have to deal with truant workers/tenants; it makes absentee landownership possible; the farmer can take up non-farm jobs.

HURT BY ‘HOLIDAY'

Coming back to the crop holiday by paddy farmers, one of the main reasons is that cost of cultivation has been higher than the prices they have been getting for many years now. This, in spite of high production levels, as well as high prices at the consumer end. Rice output in Andhra Pradesh increased from 104 lakh tonnes in 2009-10 to 140 lakh tonnes in 2010-11. Price of rice is anywhere between Rs 15 to 40. So why is the farmer going on strike? ( See table.) How are they to meet these year-on-year losses?

But there is another story behind all this. A strike always affects the poor, the workers, more than the rich, and the owners. In the case of the paddy belt in AP, it is the tenants and agricultural wage workers who suffered the most, rather than the owners, many of whom are absentee land owners. Seventy to 80 per cent of lands in these areas are being cultivated by tenant farmers, who double up as agricultural daily wage workers during the cultivation season. Absentee landownership is rampant. In fact, tenants and wage workers can hardly afford the strike and yet they agreed to go along, because of year-on-year losses.

Often, farmers blame NREGA for all their ills. It is true that even if NREGA doesn't provide the 100 days of employment it is supposed to provide, it has increased wage rates across the board for all kinds of farm operations. But NREGA has come only a day later than sooner. And other input costs have increased much more than labour costs.

But the farmers cannot pinpoint the culprits because the other input prices are increased by the government or companies. It is the workers who are right in front of them, in flesh and blood, with whom they can fight! Especially since most of the tenants and agricultural wage workers are dalits and they have been on an utterly dependent relationship to farmers, historically.

Today, when they are getting a better wage and when on the other hand the farmers are losing heavily, the farmers blame the NREGA for their problems.

NOTHING CHANGES

Crop holiday wasn't a joke. It covered more than 90,000 acres in the paddy belt and got the government worried. And what was the response of the government? Yet another committee! The Committee took 60 days to say in no uncertain terms that the government should at least cover the cost of cultivation. But it didn't recommend any concrete increase in the MSP, nor any bonus to be paid to the distressed farmers.

There have been recommendations and committees galore, amounting to little. At a meeting a farmers' leader quoted a proverb, “Karna's death has many causes”, meaning none can be pinpointed — an excuse for inaction.

But the sum of it is that the farmers' distress continues…


Farming has been a loss-making proposition, be it paddy or horticulture.


(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 28, 2011)
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