It is not entirely a coincidence that prices of vegetables are showing symptoms of a rise in Delhi at a time when the Centre has cleared a Rs 2,000-crore drought relief package for Maharashtra. This package is largely on account of the rainfall shortage last year, leading to drought-like conditions in several places.
More than 100 farmers have already committed suicide in the Vidarbha region this year, and about 1,000 last year. Suicides have been a recurrent feature of this region for the past 15 years or so. In 2006, the worst so far, almost 1,450 farmers killed themselves and this spurred the Centre into taking action. The then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had given a Rs 3,750-crore debt relief package for six most critical districts of Vidarbha. But since the relief was meant only for those who had taken loans from banks, many farmers became ineligible for compensation.
Though Vidarbha falls in a rain-shadow area, irrigation did not grow to the extent desired and reports of corruption in awarding irrigation projects are legion. Add to all this the apprehension that farm production may show a decline this year because of unseasonal rain, and one gets an alarming agrarian scenario. Though initial indications have been that the monsoon will be good this year, its distribution over space and time are important. India has 140 million hectares under cultivation, and just 62 million hectares is irrigated.
Maharashtra is just one part of the story. The crisis is likely to spread to other regions of western India because there have been reports of China lowering its cotton import from Gujarat. Suicides are happening in West Bengal also because of the slump in prices of potatoes. Ironically this is happening in Burdwan district, once famed for its agricultural strength. In UP, sugarcane farmers are yet to receive large amounts from sugar mills, which, in turn, have complaining about high fair and remunerative prices set by the state government. In western UP, however, farmers are still switching to sugarcane from paddy and wheat in the hope of getting high prices, despite the fact sugarcane is an enormous water-guzzler.
Given this situation the Centre should seriously consider whether the recommendation of the Shanta Kumar committee that the provisions in the food security law be diluted is practicable or not. In its last year of rule, UPA 1 had given a `71,000-crore loan waiver package as desperate measure. A similar step may complicate finance minister Arun Jaitley’s plans to rein in the fiscal deficit. Hence similar packages for some other parts of the country may preclude such an eventuality.