Saturday, 8 August 2020

Food bowl cries out in despair

Updated: May 23, 2015 5:00 pm

The fields turned golden as the wheat stalks ripened fully promising a good yield for farmers. But rains in past three months, hailstorm and strong winds, have left them staring at a dim future and mounting debts. In Punjab, things have turned worse with inefficient government failing to get timely relaxation in norms for procurement of damaged crop or clear mandis choked with grains. The cash starved government has failed to pay up the farmers for their grain.

The strange weather this year, marked by unusually high rate of western disturbances that left their mark across the globe, has left farmers in country’s food bowl completely shattered. The yield per acre has dropped to as low as 14 quintal in Punjab, whereas in a normal year it is over 30 quintals and in a good year over 45 quintals. Punjab adds something like 125 lakh tonnes of wheat to central government’s food pool while Haryana procures nearly 70 lakh tonnes of wheat every year. However, this year Punjab is not sure of even getting 100 lakh tonnes while Haryana is not expecting to reach over 70 lakh tonnes. Last year Haryana had procured over 70 lakh tonnes for the centre while Punjab had added 115 lakh tonnes of wheat for the central pool. This year, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.

“The farmers are not expecting to recover even the cost they put into the fields let alone the profit. Not only has the yield per hectare fallen dramatically but the harvest is of poor quality as the grain has lost its shine, is broken and wet,” said Rajbir Singh, a farmer in Rajpura, Patiala, standing amidst his destroyed crop.

Agitated farmers in Punjab have gone on a confrontational mode with the government. They are demanding not just relaxation in wheat procurement norms, crop insurance policy and Rs 35,000 per acre compensation for crop damage due to unseasonal rains but also job to a family member of the farmers who commits suicide besides compensation of Rs 10 lakh.

It is not just slow lifting of wheat and clogged grain markets that have led the farmers to be up in arms against the government, in Punjab, the cash-starved government has also failed to make timely payment to farmers for their wheat procured. By the last week of April the Punjab government had paid only Rs 76 lakh against the procurement of 50 lakh metric tonnes. This is peanuts as compared to what the government should have paid—close to Rs 7,250 crore to the farmers for this much wheat. The procurement season in Punjab begins on April 1 every year and continues till middle of May. As per government norms, the money due to the farmers must be released within 48 hours.

Consultant, Punjab Farmers Commission, PS Rangi said, “The government has been dragging its feet on getting assessment done of the damage due to rains and hailstorm. Consequently, the state government has not been able to fathom the extent of the heavy damage done by the weather and has not asked for adequate compensation from the Centre. All this will lead to farmer’s loss who is already under tremendous financial strain.”

And it is the ruling government that is in line of fire. It is not just fallen yield that has depressed the man in the fields, but Punjab government’s failure to effectively procure the wheat from mandis that has enraged the farmers.

On April 28, thousands of farmers piled on railway tracks in Jandiala, 20 kms from Amritsar, Punjab and blocked the rail traffic on Amritsar-New Delhi line. They were members of Kisan Sangharsh Committee and were protesting against tardy wheat procurement as grain markets are choked with wheat due to slow lifting. There were similar protests across Punjab, in Tarn Taran where main highway was blocked for four hours.

Such massive was the protest that Amritsar-New Delhi Flying Mail could not cross Jandiala, the Swarna Shatabadi coming from New Delhi was stopped at Beas and Shan-e-Punjab, also coming from Delhi was halted midway.

Sensing an opportunity to whip the government, opposition Congress became active in hijacking the issue for political mileage. In Delhi, Youth Congress activists staged a demonstration against the Centre’s policies and courted arrest when stopped from marching to the Parliament. A day later, Rahul Gandhi hopped on a train from Delhi, travelling with aam aadmi, and took a whirlwind tour of choked grain markets in Punjab and Haryana, sympathising with farmers.

Deputy leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, Capt Amarinder Singh demanded that Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal should step down from the post and compensate farmers. His party rival, Partap Singh Bajwa also made it a point to visit mandis in Jagraon and Ludhiana and console with the agitated farmers.

Haryana—new government takes care not to tread on farmers’ toes

In Haryana, contrary to the scene in Punjab, it is only nature’s fury that has the farmers cringing. The new government in power has ensured that the procurement of wheat from farmers is prompt and efficient. By April 26 last year 46 lakh tonnes of wheat had been procured which is 48 lakh tonnes this year.

While Punjab is still struggling to conduct the damage assessment of crops, Haryana has already submitted its report. As much as 13 lakh acre of wheat cultivation has been damaged in Haryana due to recent unseasonal rains in the past three months. The total area under wheat cultivation in the state this year is 63 lakh acre.

About 3 lakh acre suffered 75 percent to 100 per cent damage, 2 lakh acre suffered 50 per cent to 75 per cent damage and 8 lakh acre suffered 25 per cent to 50 per cent damage. In Haryana the worst affected district is Palwal which witnessed 3 lakh acre of crop damaged followed by Mahendergarh, Hisar, Bhiwani and Rewari. The yield per acre has fallen after untimely rainfall impacted the standing crops. It rained even at the time of harvest, adversely influencing the yield. Haryana has a greater yield per acre than Punjab due to better farming practices and facilities. In 2014, the average yield per acre was 47 quintals per hectare while in 2013 it was 44 quintals per hectare. This year it is projected to be less than 40 quintals per hectare.

In what has cheered the farmers is that scientists at the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research in Karnal have given a thumbs up to the weather beaten yield. R K Gupta, principal investigator, quality improvement at IIWBR said that the food grains, despite the damage, have not lost their nutrition.

“There is lack of shine in the damaged grains and high moisture content which becomes a problem when it comes to storing the grains. Moisture in the grain attracts fungal infections. But otherwise the grain is very much edible and nutritious,” he said.

 

How Punjab messed up the farmers while Haryana sailed smoothly

In Haryana, the new government in charge took a pro-active approach to ensure hassle-free wheat procurement. By end of April nearly 50 lakh tonnes of wheat had been lifted against the overall target of 65 lakh tonne. The BJP government promptly got sampling of the wheat and did coordinating with Food Corporation of India as the wheat started hitting the markets.

Knowing that the crop was weather beaten, the state government efficiently followed up with the central government for getting relaxation in norms for procurement of wheat so that the farmers are not unnecessarily harassed. The government pressed for relaxations for the shrivelled and broken grain. The farmers were given an extra edge as the government bore the value cut imposed on the lustre loss in grains. Unlike Punjab where bulk of the procurement is in hands of not so efficient district food and supplies controller, in Haryana, the charge was given to the deputy commissioners who were directed to visit the mandis every day and to smooth out problems.

To keep procurement hassle free, multi-layered monitoring approach was adopted as administrative secretaries were allotted districts and asked to visit them to ensure that the DCs were working alright.

On the contrary, Punjab government was caught napping as the farmers were  afflicted with ruin due to bad crop. Food minister, Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon, who is the son-in-law of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, reacted to the situation very late. He approached the Centre for relaxation in procurement norms on April 22, nearly a month into procurement season. By that time Haryana had already got its relaxation approved and was busy procuring quickly.

The politics within the Badal family is also being blamed for chaos in mandis across Punjab. Senior Badal, the CM, makes sure that his son-in-law Adesh Partap Kairon is not interfered in his work. However, Kairon failed to get things moving on time and has also centralised the procurement mechanism eliminating the supervisory role of deputy commissioners, which in turn has led to chaos.

Then there is the lifting problem that has tied itself into knots due to vested interests. Lifting grains from mandis and transporting this to godowns is a lucrative business. The handling and transportation contracts for this have to be in place at least two months before the procurement season starts. However, the government dragged its feet on this, reportedly due to vested interests of politicians, and even as the grain started arriving in the mandis, the tender process of handling and transportation contracts was still unfinished. Due to this failure, grain markets started getting choked early in the procurement season as the lifting of grains was excruciatingly slow.

Farmers killing themselves in despair

The nation watched in horror the suicide of a farmer from Rajasthan caught live on camera during a rally of the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi. However, Gajendra Singh was not the only one who ended his life in despair. In the past two months of this harvest season, more than 100 farmers across the country have killed themselves with ruin staring them in the face.

Suicides have been reported from not just Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab but also from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. How many farmers are killing themselves in India has been a moot question which has not been accurately answered by any agency. A year ago, a report had suggested: Suicide rate among Indian farmers 47 per cent higher than for the rest of the population. Across the country, it was reported that the farmers’ suicide rate was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in 2011—that was five points higher than 11.1 the rate for the rest of the population.” It was claimed: “At least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years, from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between 2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001.”

In July 2012, the Lancet, prestigious medical journal in UK published a report claiming that as per a study there were 19,000 farmers suicide in 2010. In Punjab alone, affidavit records show that in the past one year, about 4680 farmers have committed suicide. Their widows, facing financial ruin fought with government for compensation and nearly 2500 women have been granted Rs 2 lakh each after a petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court by a non government organisation—Movement Against State Repression. Now, the Haryana Agriculture Minister Om Prakash Dhankar has courted controversy saying that farmers who commit suicide are cowards and criminals.

“According to Indian law, suicide is a crime. A person who commits suicide runs away from his responsibilities. Such people are cowards and the government cannot stand by such cowards, such criminals,” Dhankar said.

These comments have been seized by political opponents in the state and has caused an uproar though Dhankar has tried to clarify the context in which he said so.

The onus is now on the central government to pacify agitated farmers, treat the wounds given by nature and mitigate feeling of insecurity seeping into the farming community. Coming on the heels of controversial land reforms bill, the growing farmer unrest in the country, aided by a season of bad weather, will prove to be a tough challenge for the new government at the Centre.

 

By Priya Yadav from Chandigarh

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