Awarding rolling loan waivers to cotton growers who switch to organic cultivation is among revisions suggested by the state to the Prime Minister's relief package for Vidarbha farmers.
The subsidy, according to the proposal note, is expected to cost the central exchequer Rs 150 crore and benefit 1 lakh of the region's 17.6 lakh cotton-growing households.
Manmohan Singh announced his relief package in August 2006, but farmer suicides by pesticide swallowing in the Punjab-sized cotton belt have continued unabated — at the rate of three per day.
Now, the state is reasoning: "By bringing down cost of cultivation through scientific organic farming and by getting premium on the certified organic produce like cotton, cereals and pulses, it is possible to come out of the present debt trap."
Farmers' groups in the suicide-hit region argue that the economics of cotton farming have been thrown out of gear. The 17-lakh households are living with negative returns — spending more on seeds and pesticides (up to Rs 10,000-12,000) per acre than they earn from the sale of raw cotton (Rs 6,000-7,000).
By waiving a third of the loan each year over the next three years, the state argues, about 1 lakh farmers will climb out of debt for good.
According to the note: "This would encourage indebted farmers to switch over to low-cost cultivation, enabling them to come out of the debt trap and really close down the possibility of creation (sic) of similar situation in future."
"Farmers with bigger landholdings are free to pursue chemical farming as they can manage the costs and risks," said Secretary to the Chief Minister Umeshchandra Sarangi. "For small and marginal farmers (with holdings below 2.5 acres) with rain-fed cultivation, it makes economic sense to switch."
There is a long-standing suggestion from National Commission for Farmers Chairman Dr MS Swaminathan that the government declare Vidarbha an organic farming zone.
But farmers are skeptical about the proposal's workability, pointing out that the market for genetically altered seeds — attracting farmers with the promise of higher yields per acre — and pesticides in Vidarbha is about Rs 2,000 crore.
Ram Kalaspurkar heads the Yavatmal-based Vidarbha Organic Farming Association, a collection of 120 farmers in Yavatmal, Amravati and Wardha districts who grow organic crops across 3,000 acres.
"Today, natural seeds are an endangered species in Vidarbha because the state pushed modified seeds," he said. "The shift will not be easy and can come only over three to four years. Will the state back the farmer for the whole period?"