Sugarcane lobby triumphs, cotton farmers limp
While the Maharashtra government must be relieved that Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana leader and Kolhapur MP Raju Shetty ended his five-day fast in Baramati on Saturday, after it agreed to a sugarcane procurement price hike, many wonder why the same state ignores the plight of its cotton farmers.
In the same duration that Shetty sat on a fast 22 debt-ridden, Vidarbha cotton farmers committed suicide. One of these, Rajendra Lahiti of Dhamangaon, Amravati, breathed his last after consuming pesticide at the same time that Shetty was ending his fast with sugarcane juice on Friday.
Shetty’s fast saw a prompt response by top leaders in the state. While the MNS and Sena supported Shetty, Union agriculture minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar sent daughter Supriya Sule to soothe ruffled feathers while CM Prithiviraj Chavan himself kept a close on eye on negotiations with protestors.
Repeated attempts to get Maharashtra agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil to comment on the “double standards” for different farmers, drew a blank. When DNA spoke to Raju Shetty he said, “We want justice for all farmers. If someone raises the issue of cotton farmers we will support them.”
“If the government agrees procurement price should cover cost of production and give a bonus to farmers then this should apply to both sugar and cotton equally,” points out TISS agronomist, Dr Ram Kumar.
A thought echoed by Kishor Tiwari, of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. He points out how, last year the government was giving Rs 2,500 per quintal when international prices hovered at Rs 7,000 a quintal. “This year the government declared it will buy for Rs 3,300 per quintal. Farmers feel they’d prefer suicide to selling at such low prices,” says the activist.
Demanding a minimum of Rs 6,000 per quintal he asks, “Which fool will sell at Rs 3,300 when production costs are near Rs 4,500 per quintal?” Not surprising then that the cotton market yards are idle across the region.
In fact many say, the government’s July 2006, Rs. 3,750-crore Vidarbha relief package was a mockery. “Since then no bonus has been given in the procurement prices. Cumulatively since, this itself works out Rs 12,000 crores plus,” Tiwari points out and adds, “Though cotton is the largest cash crop in the state and the crisis severe, while the sugar lobby ensures its vote bank is well taken care of, cotton farmers die.” Tiwari also charges sugar barons across the political spectrum of using sugarcane prices to make money. “These barons use their sugar factories like milch cows. They get government relief when they complain they are in the red due to high procurement prices,” he says. Dr Ramkumar also agrees, “The factories are in the red due to mismanagement, corruption and political interference. This shouldn’t be linked to what farmers are paid.” In contrast, cotton farmers are caught in a bind while agro MNCs with a nod from the government are laughing their way to the bank. Authorities first encouraged farmers to opt for genetically modified Bt cotton, promising a huge yield. Despite initial resistance, aggressive campaigning by brand ambassadors like Nana Patekar saw many convert hoping to make a killing.
"With our native species, even if flowering failed due to excessive rain in the first half of the season, we would still manage at least some yield since the plants flower again. Bt cotton only flowers once and any failure means re-sowing the expensive Rs1,200-a-packet seeds," says Ambadas Rathod a farmer from Kolejhair, Yavatmal who faced the runt of the heavy rains in October. The blitzkrieg on high yield hadn't informed farmers of how high the cost of fertiliser would be or how pesticide-intensive this species is. "At Rs1,000 a kilo, I spent nearly Rs10,000 on fertiliser alone, and a further Rs12,000 per litre on 6-litre pesticide. After all that money and my hard work was washed away I was left with no option but borrowing money from the local money lender to re-sow," says Rathod.