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‘Tur’ farmers in Maharashtra remind Modi of his ‘chai pe charcha’ promise

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2017 Abhiram Ghadyalpatil

Wardha, Hinganghat (Vidarbha): Santosh Borkute, a cotton and tur cultivator in Amla village of Wardha district in Vidarbha region, has learned from Marathi newspapers that the Narendra Modi government has completed three years in office. He clearly remembers what Modi had promised more than three years back. When is the Prime Minister likely to fulfil his promise? Borkute asks.

In March 2014, Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, held his trademark chai pe charcha (discussion over tea) in Dabhadi village of neighbouring Yavatmal district. Modi also addressed a public meeting in Yavatmal. At both these events, Modi made one commitment—that he as the prime minister would make sure farmers are paid 50% of their cost of production over and above the minimum support price (MSP) as “profit”. “There are big advertisements in newspapers and big cut-outs in Wardha saying Modi saheb is completing three years as prime minister. But there is no information about the promise he made right here in Vidarbha three years back,” Borkute says.

If the promise was kept, Borkute would have benefitted. But on 25 May, he was among the 200-odd tur farmers at the Wardha Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee’s (APMC) market yard waiting for the APMC staff to arrive and start purchasing their produce at the MSP of Rs5,050 per quintal.

“Forget 50% profit, we are struggling to get even MSP,” says Arun Harshbodhi, another farmer. Since 10 May, when Borkute brought his 25 quintals of tur to the market, he has made several visits in the hope of selling it. “All I have done these 15 days is come here, check if my tur is kept safely, and go home,” Borkute says.

Borkute is not alone. At some 200-plus tur procurement centres in Vidarbha and Marathwada where the National Agriculture Co-operative Marketing Federation (Nafed) had agreed to purchase the crop till 31 May, the desperation of thousands of farmers represent all that is wrong with government intervention in the agriculture market, the systemic problems in the regulated markets, and exploitation of farmers by traders and middlemen, especially when there is a bumper yield of a major food crop. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has said that the Centre would be requested to extend the deadline to 15 June. But as of now, tur farmers are at the mercy of traders who are under no obligation to buy the produce at the MSP. On 3 June, Fadnavis also reiterated his government’s commitment to bring in a new law that would make purchase of farm produce below MSP a criminal offence. But right now, MSP is not a legal obligation that the government or the traders have to follow.

So, farmers in Vidarbha and Marathwada, the two main tur growing regions in Maharashtra which have also witnessed farm suicides on a large scale, had queued up at these purchase centres frantically hoping to meet the 31 May deadline. “We are worried about our tur if it is not bought till May 31. There is no guarantee that the government will extend the deadline further,” said Vilas Waghmare at the Wardha market. Waghmare, who has been waiting since 17 May to sell his 25 quintals of tur, refers to the four extensions given before but is worried that the 31 May deadline won’t be extended.

In early April, Maharashtra’s agriculture commissionerate had told the state government that the state would produce a record yield of 2.35 million tonnes of tur, a five-fold increase over the 2015-16 yield of only 444,000 tonnes. Yet, beginning December 2016, Nafed and Maharashtra government agencies have been able to purchase only 560,000 quintals only, according to Maharashtra’s minister of state for agriculture Sadabhau Khot who, ironically, calls this a “record high purchase by any government in Maharashtra”.

Apart from Modi’s March 2014 promise, the other common refrain at these markets is the Prime Minister’s frequent appeals to farmers to move away from commercial crops like sugar cane and cotton and grow more pulses. Sanjay Alone, a farmer from village Jamtha in Wardha district, says Modi had called for increasing productivity of pulses. “We have produced so much of tur but Modi has not ensured that we get at least the MSP which itself is very low. Where are the achche din that Modi promised,” Alone asks.

Three factors contributed to the record tur output in Maharashtra. One, the Centre’s appeals to grow more pulses. Two, the high retail price of tur in 2015-16—as high as Rs180-200 per kg—due to a low national yield of 2.56 million tonnes which led to the high private market price of tur between Rs8,000-9,000 per quintal. Three, drought in Marathwada shrank the area under sugar cane by nearly 36% in 2016 and farmers shifted towards tur cultivation while farmers in Vidarbha preferred tur over cotton since they felt the MSP for cotton—between Rs3,860 ad Rs4,160 per quintal in 2016-17—was at least Rs500 less than the cost of production per quintal. In Maharashtra, the area under tur expanded from 1.23 million hectares in 2015 to 1.53 million hectares in 2016.

Mohan Paleria, a big cotton and tur farmer in Wardha district with 20 acre of land, said the traders were offering Rs. 9,800 per quintal for tur at one point in early 2016 because the yield had been low. “So farmers speculated that the demand for tur will increase and decided to grow more tur to earn more profit in 2016-17. But the market and government have let us down,” says Paleria, who had a yield of 75 quintals of cotton and 45 quintals of tur.

To get MSP, it is mandatory for farmers to register their tur at the nearest APMC market by 31 May. On registration, they are issued a token which mentions the date of registration and quantity along with the name and village of the farmer. Many farmers who registered their tur in April are still waiting for their produce to be purchased. At the Wardha APMC market, 57-year-old Vasant Ghongde shows the token he was issued on 20 April by Nafed. “I have kept my 18 quintal tur at the market since April 20 because I have no place at home to stock it,” Ghongde says.

At 11.15 am on 25 May, APMC staffers Samir Pendke and Ashok Rannawre arrive at the Wardha market to start grading, weighing, and purchase of tur. These two staffers are supposed to clear tur stock of more than 15,000 quintals at Wardha APMC alone. “For the quantity of tur at this market, the government needs to appoint at least 10 people who can grade, weigh, and purchase. But there are only two people of which one is an administrative staff. To complete procurement of entire tur kept here, they need to clear at least 50 farmers in a day but they buy produce from only 10 farmers,” says Dinesh Ramteke of Waifad village.

The moment the APMC staff arrive on the scene, an argument breaks out among different groups of farmers over whose tur ought to be purchased first. The 44.8-degrees heat adds to the desperation. Gajanan Charde, a Shetkari Sanghatana activist and farmer who is also waiting in the queue, takes charge and calms down the agitated farmers. All agree that those farmers who registered their tur till 22 April, the previous deadline, should be called first, and the activity begins.

Farmers say a large quantity of tur has been purchased by traders for Rs 3,800-4100 per quintal. They also claim that a large chunk of the purchase made by government was actually the stock sold by traders. “Fadnavis says that government has purchased 6 lakh tonnes. But a large part of this tur has been sold by traders who had bought it from farmers only. APMC and Nafed staff bought tur at MSP even when they knew that farmers are not directly selling their produce,” says farmer Bhaskar Kasurkar, who on 25 May got his tur registered at the Hinganghat APMC market some 45 km from Wardha.

In April, the government asked all markets to buy tur only from farmers who produce their Aadhar card, 7/12 extracts (7/12 extracts are proof of agriculture land title ownership and they also mention cultivation details), and a photocopy of the bank passbook. Farmers say the traders can produce fake 7/12 extracts since there is no photograph on them. “Traders manage 7/12 in their names or some fictitious farmers’ names, and sell tur to government at MSP. The APMC and Nafed oblige traders by not even grading their tur,” says Ramesh Gavai, a farmer from Sewagram (famous for the Gandhi Ashram), who is struggling to sell his 24 quintals.

It is a poignant scenario in which MSP of Rs5,050 per quintal—an increase of only Rs425 over the 2015-16 MSP—has become an aspiration for farmers who would otherwise have to settle for Rs3,800-4,100 that traders are offering. Sadly, the systemic problems in India’s heavily regulated agriculture markets eat into whatever modest gains farmers can hope to make even in this low MSP. Sample this: the APMC and Nafed that buy tur at MSP do not make an immediate payment to farmers.

“We are handed down post-dated cheques which can be encashed 15 days or a month later,” says Sumit Vaidya, the 25-year-old son of a farmer, who has brought his father’s tur to the Wardha APMC in a tempo by paying Rs500 from his village Shirasgaon. If at all his 10 quintals of tur gets purchased at MSP, he will get a post-dated cheque for Rs50,500. At all APMC markets, there are notices displayed for farmers that they have to pay Rs 25 per quintal for grading, Rs16 as labour cost, and Rs3 for weighing. On each quintal of tur that the farmers sell, they have to set aside Rs44 for these costs. “These Rs44 have to be given in cash at the time of purchase but we get post-dated cheques. I need money now to buy seeds and inputs for next Kharif season,” Borkute says. On 10May, when Borkute emptied a tempo of his tur stock, he himself, along with fellow farmers, carried the sacks on his shoulders into the market yard. He wonders why he must pay the labour cost when he himself carried the crop on his shoulders.

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