When chief minister Parkash Singh Badal recently announced that Punjab's farmer was frustrated due to crop failure, he was not making a political statement but simply stating the fact.
"Farmers in Punjab are frustrated as various crops have failed due to different reasons over the past year," Badal said. Starting from paddy, including basmati, in the previous kharif season to the rabi season that has just ended, it was the worst crop year for farmers of Punjab. Other main crops - potato, maize, cotton, kinnow and sugarcane - also failed, leading to losses for farmers.
With paddy transplantation in the current kharif season getting over, farmers have begun worrying about the ensuing rabi season (2015-16) as there are fears that the state is headed for wheat seed shortage.
"The poor remuneration for crops during the past one year has hit farmers hard. It is seen as the main reason for suicides by them though this is still to be confirmed by a government agency," said joint director, state agriculture department, BS Sohal.
He said farm experts were also in a fix. "We are telling farmers to grow crops to the best of their knowledge. All stakeholders need to play a proactive role to save agriculture in Punjab," Sohal said.
Redundant varieties posing challenge
Varieties of crops getting redundant is emerging as a challenge for the experts.
Sugarcane crop, for instance, has failed in Punjab as variety COJ 64 grown successfully for two decades in the state now lacks lustre and is no longer as productive as it was. "In the absence of a better variety, sugarcane in Punjab is not able to match cane grown in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra," said Punjab Sugarfed general manager MP Singh.
The Punjab government is trying to find a way out in the absence of a better cane variety. "We are coming up with drip irrigation for sugarcane that should help increase productivity," said Punjab financial commissioner (cooperation) SK Sandhu.
Similarly, farmers have sought better varieties of wheat and paddy, especially basmati. "Farmers prefer short-duration varieties as they consume less water, involve less input cost and are exposed to vagaries of weather for a shorter duration," Sohal said.
"The commonly sown wheat variety, HD2967, is no longer resistant to Karnal bunt and yellow rust diseases despite 80% of area sown in the previous rabi season. We are planning to ask farmers to grow HD3086 and HD1105 varieties in the next season," said Punjab agro-industries corporation managing director KS Pannu.
No relief mechanism, dependence on Centre
There is no practical mechanism to support farmers in case the crop fetches lower price or production falls due to bad weather or if there is an increase in input cost.
Due to drought in the previous kharif season, farmers and the state government had to pump in additional cost to irrigate fields due to poor rains. The state government demanded Rs 2,330 crore from the Centre as compensation but received a meagre Rs 78 crore.
Chief minister Badal shifted the onus on the Centre last Sunday when he said the state government couldn't do much for farmers as major policy decisions for the agri-sector such as the minimum support rice (MSP) and bonus were in the purview of the central government.
"The Centre should have given bonus (over and above the MSP) on wheat due to the drastic fall in productivity this season," said PS Rangi, consultant with the Punjab State Farmers Commission. He said all crops, including basmati, potato, maize, cotton, kinnow and sugarcane, had suffered and farmers were getting less price but there was no way to support them.
State cooperative bank chairman Avtar Singh Zira said farmers were trying to survive on easy term loan on 4% annual interest offered by the state cooperative bank. "But for how long? Debt is a sweet poison. What will happen when subsequent crops fail? The farmer will be caught in a trap and it will become difficult for him to repay the loan," Zira said. He suggested a crop insurance policy with assured compensation.
Contract farmers the worst hit
Due to the fall in remuneration of subsequent crops, the farmers doing agriculture on contract have suffered the most. "The contract farmer pays the lease amount of about Rs 40,000 per acre in advance to land owners," said Rangi. About 40% farmers are engaged in contract farming in the state. The rural development department has also reduced the contract amount being offered on panchayat land.
Fall in commodities market adds to woes
Prices of wheat and maize have fallen by 33% and 29%, respectively, in the international market in one year alone. Similarly, cotton and sugar prices also crashed by 22% and 25%, respectively.
Experts say the impact is seen in India too, leading to a volatile commodities market.
How crops failed Punjab's farmer
Paddy: In the kharif season of 2014, farmers suffered due to drought as there was an increase in input cost by 15% to 20%. The procurement slowed down as the Centre delayed the cash credit limit for buying paddy.
Basmati: In the kharif season of 2014, the prices of basmati crashed to Rs 2,900 per quintal, which even sold at double the price in the previous year. This kharif season has area under basmati reduced to half in Patiala district and it would fall in the entire state. Prices are expected to fall with stocks of the previous season yet to be lifted.
Potato: There was a glut leading to losses. The input cost was Rs 25,000 per acre but potatoes were sold for Rs 3-4 a kg, making it impossible for farmers to recover the cost. Rain in February delayed harvesting. Sown over 87,000 hectares in the previous year, now farmers are not keen on the crop.
Maize: Maize with an MSP of Rs 1,352 a quintal sold at Rs 1,200, while undried maize could only fetch Rs 675 a quintal. Markfed, the nodal agency for procuring maize, is not fulfilling the state government's mandate. Maize is the best alternative to paddy.
Cotton: The crop suffered due to untimely rains in the picking season of September-October. The model (average) price crashed and sold between Rs 3,200 and Rs 4,130 per quintal for American cotton and between Rs 4,300 and Rs 4,950 for desi cotton against previous year's rate of Rs 6,000 per quintal. The area under cotton was 4.2 lakh hectares but this is also expected to come down. The input cost has increased as BT varieties are getting resistant to pests.
Kinnow: It could fetch Rs 8-Rs 9 a kg against the previous rate of Rs 10. "This fall is huge for the farmer as the input cost is also increasing," said director, horticulture, Gurkanwal Singh. He said that kinnow growers formed 35% of farmers who had shifted to protected farming.
Sugarcane: Farmers are already awaiting payment of Rs 413 crore. The common variety of COJ64 has stopped giving optimum output. Cane yield over the years has come down by 700 quintals per hectare. About 94,000 hectares is under cultivation. Since sugar prices are less than sugarcane prices, the mills can't afford payment to farmers. The state government is clearing the backlog by releasing quarterly installments of Rs 50 crore.
Wheat: There has been a steep fall in wheat production this year by 20%. The crop withered under the vagaries of the unpredictable weather. It rained when the crop was at the maturing stage and led to fall in yield and quality of grain.
Double whammy for farmers
It is a double squeeze for farmers. The terms of trade are against agriculture. There has been a steep rise in machinery cost, labour and diesel but increase in wheat-paddy MSP has been meagre.
PS Rangi, Punjab State Farmers' Commission consultant
Weather played truant
Bad weather during the entire year added to woes of farmers. Punjab's farmers are under stress
Punjab agriculture commissioner BS Sidhu
Proactive research needed
The crop cycle in last two years has been hit. We need to shift to shorter-duration crop varieties. Our university has to play a proactive role in research for which we need more funds. More than crop insurance we need the non-agriculture sector to support the farm sector. Other sectors are progressing, not agriculture, while they are responsible for climatic changes. Why should only the farmer suffer?
BS Dhillon, Punjab Agricultural University vice-chancellor