Kannadigas are fond of the saying: “It isn’t possible to predict the survival of a she-buffalo calf and tur.” Both are prone to disease and the vagaries of nature. The little yellow tur dal, despite the likelihood of a record yield this year, is causing much anxiety to farmers in the southern state of Karnataka.
Two years ago Basawan Gowda, a farmer from Salwadgi village in the drought-affected Vijayapur district, was sceptical about the prospect of making good returns from his tur crop. He had begun to grow tur five years ago after being disappointed by millets, and so he had stuck it out. In 2014, things started looking up when the crop yielded about 100 quintals from 28 acres of land. “This year, if the season continues to remain like this, dry weather with normal rainfall, I can expect a yield of between 125 and 150 quintals,” he said.
Persistent droughts and the increasing cost of production have made the last two years difficult. There has been an enormous rise in input costs because of the increasing price of chemical fertilizers. A major pesticide sold by a multinational company to eliminate pod borers (a pest that attacks the tur crop) costs Rs 27,000 a litre, and the farmer usually has to spray it at least four times during the six month crop cycle for it to be effective.
Gowda is not alone in anticipating a record production of tur this year. The monsoon has been sufficient for this semi-arid crop which requires less water, and conservative estimates by the state’s Agricultural Department suggest that tur production will cross 3 million tonnes. However, Karnataka farmers are now in the peculiar situation of anticipating a great crop and yet feeling anxious that their healthy production is about to be a calamity.
After two consecutive years of drought and subsequent decline in the supply, the central government announced in July that the crop will be imported from Mozambique and Myanmar. The hope behind this was to keep domestic prices in check because they have practically tripled since 2014, increasing from Rs 3,500 a quintal to Rs 9,000 in 2015-2016. This decision has created a scare amongst farmers, who insist that it is an ill-advised plan that will seriously affect local growers of the crop.
Lohit Maddur, a farmer from Habal village in Sedam taluk, called the import decision an ‘anti-farmer’ move and expressed fears about the impact it will invariably have on Indian farmer revenues. “Prices of tur have already slumped and there are still four months remaining to harvest the new crop,” he said. “What will happen to our produce when it reaches the local markets in January? This proves that the BJP is a traders’ party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should halt the import or otherwise impose heavy taxes on imported tur dal to prevent a fall in the prices of domestic tur.”
There is a further unhappy agricultural irony in all this. India is the primary producer and consumer of tur in the world, generating about 2.6 million tonnes per year – nearly three-fourths (68.89 percent) of the annual global produce, and consuming approximately 7,000 tonnes every day. Maharashtra and Karnataka together grow just under half of the country’s tur produce, with the former deploying almost double the area for growing the crop. However, the normal rains this year has led several farmers from drought-hit areas to shift to growing tur and the area under cultivation has almost doubled.
The Tur Research Centre at Kalaburgi has distributed 20,000 quintals of seeds to farmers in Karnataka, almost five times more than the normal amount that was distributed in previous years, and there is a strong possibility that the area under cultivation in Karnataka will expand from 7.3 lakh hectares to over 10 lakh hectares.
Maddur’s views are echoed by Abhishek Reddy, a farmer based in Sedam who also said that the government is concerned only with rich traders and the moneyed class. Dismissing Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s description of the decision to import tur from Mozambique as a revolutionary step, he asked, “If importing tur dal is revolutionary, what should we call the record production of tur by Indian farmers if it happens this year?”
Millers have also been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the government’s decision, stating that it should be encouraging Indian farmers to produce more quality tur rather than resorting to imports. The president of the Tur Dal Millers Association, Shivasharanappa Niggudgi, suspects that traders who supply dal to malls and bulk sellers had a hand in the decision. “This decision will neither benefit the farmers nor the consumers, it will only benefit importers and big traders. Mozambique tur dal may cost importers between Rs 40 to 45 a kg and they will sell it at a much cheaper rate than domestic produce. This will result in collapse of tur prices which in turn will adversely affect farmers,” he said. In this scenario, consumers who buy the cheaper imported tur dal will get some minimum benefit but at the cost of quality dal.
DM Mannur, a scientist at Kalaburgi’s Tur Research Centre, has been acclaimed for producing the internationally famous TS3R variety of tur. Mannur has also been deeply critical of the union government’s decision to import the crop, particularly given the certainty that this year will see a higher yield. He predicted severe consequences for farmers: “If tur dal prices nosedive further, it may force tur growers to commit suicide like cotton growers in Maharashtra and sugarcane growers in Karnataka, as they have already experienced two consecutive years of tur crop loss due to drought,” he said.
Mannur has voiced other concerns about the proposed imports. According to him, the tur from Myanmar or Mozambique will not be as good for consumption since it lacks the ingredients and nutrients of the Indian tur dal. Instead, the Indian government should encourage Indian farmers by providing competitive prices as well as focus on quality storage facilities to be able to deploy dal during droughts and production shortages.
“During a meeting with the Director General of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi [recently], I strongly recommended building massive silos on a large scale on barren lands to store treated surplus tur and use it during droughts and adverse production conditions,” he said. “The government should take a pragmatic view of tur growers and consumers, instead of coming out with knee-jerk reactions.”
Other experts remain less critical in their assessment of the situation. SM Mundinamani, an agri-economist from the Dharwad University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), claimed that as long as the government ensures the purchase of tur takes place at prices higher than the current MSP (Minimum Support Price), this will automatically counter the import effect and save farmers from carrying out distress sale of their produce. The Karnataka state government has requested UAS to work out the cost of production of tur and how farmers can be protected from the after-effects of imports.
In the meantime, a point on which there is unanimous agreement is that the favourable climatic conditions this year mean that there will be higher production levels, and both the state and union governments should consider this seriously to protect tur farmers.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)