Low-cost farming and regeneration of water resources can be a way out of misery for farmers who are driven to desperation and suicides, says a senior Maharashtra official.
Sudhir Kumar Goyal, the Amravati divisional commissioner, blames the indiscriminate promotion of cost-intensive farming, even in un-irrigated areas, for the poor condition of farmers in the state.
The five suicide-prone districts of western Vidarbha, namely Amravati, Akola, Yavatmal, Buldana and Washim, which have reported close to 1,500 suicides in the last 20 months, fall within Goyal's jurisdiction.
"My heart goes out for those who ended their lives out of acute frustration and for their bereaved families even as I am worried about those caught in the web of a flawed system," Goyal said in an interview.
Two massive relief packages are under implementation in the state. Goyal, the implementing authority for the prime minister's as well as the state government's relief package, admitted that the crisis had worsened in recent times.
Indebtedness is a consequence of wrong agricultural practices, unbridled market forces and inadequate protection against the vagaries of nature.
"In fact, the crisis is more about the millions of farmers who are struggling for survival in a flawed system amid adversity without proper help and guidance," Goyal said.
His prescription to end the crisis: low-cost farming with high stress on micro-watershed development in un-irrigated areas.
"We allocate Rs 400 billion for irrigation on 15 per cent of the cultivable area and only Rs 40 billion for watershed development on 85 per cent of the rain-fed area," he pointed out, citing the case of Maharashtra where he has done a stint as agriculture commissioner.
He said the introduction of high yield varieties had eroded the sustenance base and the shift to cash crops without regard to the soil type and climatic conditions was proving to be the compounding factors.
He cited the case of Yavatmal, where the annual spending on pesticides is Rs 300 million and the use of BT cotton rampant, as an illustration of promotion of cost-intensive farming in un-irrigated areas.
Till the 1960s, farmers produced traditional varieties of food grains for sale as well as self-consumption. Seeds and manure were also produced on-farm as was fodder for cattle. Hybrid food varieties, which replaced traditional ones, do not yield seeds and fodder.
With many farmers completely abandoning food crops, they have to buy food for self-consumption along with seeds and fodder. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which the cash crops and hybrid food varieties need, are of course the costlier inputs that the farmers have to buy even as the prices of farm produce are going down, he said.
An attendant contradiction, Goyal said, is that irrigated agriculture is heavily subsidised — be it water, fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides — while there is no subsidy on agriculture in the rain-fed area.
The bureaucrat has been pressing for a fool-proof crop insurance scheme to mitigate the farmers' sufferings on account of drought and excess rain and advocating market reforms to shield them from mindless market forces.
Because of cost-intensive farming that requires loans, the cotton farmer has become a bonded labourer on his own farm, as he cannot earn even as much as he should pay others as wage labour, Goyal pointed out.
While the revival of the old chavadi system — a feature of community life in which village adults would sit together and care for each other's welfare — or joint families seems difficult, promotion of low-cost farming, measures to increase the farmers' net income and protective mechanism such as crop insurance and market reforms should be pressed vigorously, he stressed.
Another important input would be the creation of secondary or 'off-farm' sources of income like dairy, goat-rearing and other agro-based vocations that the government is trying to promote, he said.