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MP’s ‘jeans-and-smartphone’ farmers fighting price wars from Indore to Chicago

With traditional agrarian movements withering, a tech-savvy breed of cultivators has turned to social media mobilising and balance sheets to track profits.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2017 12:43 IST
Aman Sethi
Kedar Sirohi of the Aam Kisaan Union has an M.Sc in Farm Management and Agricultural Market, and is networking farmers to work together at a time when crop prices are increasingly set by international markets.
Kedar Sirohi of the Aam Kisaan Union has an M.Sc in Farm Management and Agricultural Market, and is networking farmers to work together at a time when crop prices are increasingly set by international markets. (P Raju/HT Photo)

Kedar Sirohi’s phone buzzed with a private Facebook message as protests by disenchanted farmers gathered steam across Madhya Pradesh this June.

“We are ready, we are standing on the streets,” wrote a young farmer from a village in the Malwa region, “Now we are wondering: How do we do a farmers’ agitation?”

For Sirohi, a 35-year-old farmer from Madhya Pradesh’s Harda district, the message captured both the confusion and turmoil among a new generation of farmers at a time when traditional agrarian movements have withered away.

As a bumper harvest pushed crop prices to lows of one rupee a kilogram, young cultivators in search of leadership turned to avenues such as the Facebook page of the Aam Kisan Union, a five-year-old organisation set up by Sirohi and his friends.

“I asked our followers to share photos of their protest online, which quickly went viral. Then our brothers realised just how powerful we farmers are,” Sirohi said.

An inept state government helped their cause. In Mandsaur, the police opened fire on a protesting crowd, killing five farmers and injuring several others. A curfew was imposed, opposition parties made a beeline for Mandsaur. Suddenly, the plight of India’s farmers was a matter of heated public debate.

Smart-phone farmer

Two weeks later, the state government is still coming to terms with what the local media calls the “jeans and smart-phone farmer” - a term Sirohi embraces.

“The new farmer writes everything down, he keeps a balance sheet,” Sirohi said, “He knows how government’s import and export policies affect his prices at the local mandi.”

This trend is visible across the country. The protests in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, occurred alongside similar demonstrations in Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

“We need new models for India’s farmers. Just a loan waiver won’t fix the problem,” Sirohi said, “We have to control our inputs and develop our own channels to sell our output to get better prices.”

WATCH | Why Mandsaur’s farmers are angry

Kedar Sirohi grew up in Bhuvan Khedi village in Harda district where his father planted wheat and dal on the 30-acre family farm. The village school was only up to Class 5, but Sirohi wanted to study further so he moved to the nearby village of Khategaon, where he lived with his school headmaster.

“After school, I did a B.Sc in Agriculture and then a masters degree in Agriculture Economics and Farm Management,” he said, “My thesis compared the procurement efficiency of different marketing channels – the mandi, agro-giants like Cargill, millers, and small traders.”

In each case, Sirohi said, the farmer could not set his own prices for his produce, but was forced to accept the prices set by buyers.

After college, he worked the length and breadth of India’s farm supply chain: Two years at ITC’s e-chaupal where the company buys farm produce through village-level computer kiosks; two years at the National Bulk Handling Corporation in Gujarat -- a state-run warehousing company, and then two years as a project manager at the Myanmar International Commodity Exchange, in Yangon – a bourse that trades much of the arhar/ tur dal imported into India.

“If a manager exceed his targets he gets a bonus. If a farmer has a bumper harvest he’s finished because the prices crash.”

“I always knew I wanted to return to my fields and start a farmers’ movement,” he said. His years of study and work had convinced him that the farmer wasn’t the problem, the market was.

“If a manager exceed his targets he gets a bonus,” he said, “If a farmer has a bumper harvest he’s finished because the prices crash.”

“The liberalisation of agro-imports, and restrictions on export mean prices in India are at the mercy of international markets,” said Rahul Vhora, an Indore-based commodity trader, “Excessive imports push down prices. But if imports are interrupted for any reason, prices in India spike.”

Exports ban, crashed prices

Initially, MP’s farmers like Sirohi’s father mainly grew wheat, which was procured by the government, and pulses which were traded internationally and commanded good prices. In 2006, however, the Indian government banned exports and removed import duties on pulses. As cheap imported pulses flooded the market, pulse prices crashed, and farmers switched to cash crops like soybean.

“It took us a decade to perfect growing soybean,” Sirohi said, “But as imports increased, the prices for soybean crashed.”

This year, for instance, soybean prices in Indore are currently at Rs 2,400 per quintal, below the government’s minimum support price of Rs. 2,850 even before sowing has begun.

“The soybean price in the Indore mandi is set by three different markets,” Vhora explained, “The Bursa Malaysia, the spot price in Indore, and the overnight closing price of the Chicago Board of Trade.”

But retail prices of soybean products haven’t fallen as much, so the value is being captured by traders, processors and retailers.

“Farmers have to take control of the entire value chain – from seed production, to agro-processing, to selling the final product,” Sirohi said, “That is the only way to ensure remunerative prices for our products.”

The networked farm protests in June were a step in this direction, as farmers from far-flung corners of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra found each other through social media and messaging groups. Sirohi condemns the violence, and says farmer leaders must accept that shortcomings of this movement rather than assume the violence was the work of unknown outsiders.

“Aside from our immediate demands, we are now linked with each other. Now we can find ways to work with each other,” Sirohi said, “Farmers in areas with high seed production can sell directly to farmers with high seed demand. Farmers can set up dal mills and buy from each other.”

Give us a few years, Sirohi said, “And we’ll set up a farmer-owned rural industry right here in Madhya Pradesh.”

Till then, Sirohi wants the government to control imports, re-open exports for commodities like dal, and offer better support prices to the farmer.

The struggle for a better deal continues.

This is the first of the five-part HT series ‘Being Farmer Now’.