Bigger dams, irrigation projects won’t help save Maharashtra’s farmers

  • Ketaki Ghoge and Sayli Udas Mankikar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Nov 05, 2014 16:06 IST

In the past two decades, the National Crime Records Bureau has recorded 60,750 farmer suicides in the state. This means more than 3,000 farmers have killed themselves every year, reflecting a deepening agrarian crisis untouched by policies and subsidies doled out by the government.

To get the state back on its feet, the new BJP government needs to start from agriculture and allied sectors. In the past five years, agriculture and allied sectors growth in the state has swung from 18% to -9%, and has finally recovered at 3.8%. Although 54% of the population is involved in agriculture, its contribution to the state’s income is just 11%.

Experts say there are no quick fixes to this and the government needs to revisit the agriculture policy completely. In a state where 80% farming is dependent on rain, water management and irrigation are closely linked to the agrarian crisis. And the multi-crore irrigation scam is a clear indication of how the politicians have milked the farmers dry.

“Famer suicides in Vidarbha, which are now becoming rampant in Marathwada, are a blot on Maharashtra. Setting up irrigation is not the answer. We need to revisit the agriculture policy, which is comprehensive and sustainable,” said Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy analyst.

For years, the way out has been announcing big dams, which has left politicians richer and projects worth Rs78,000 crore incomplete.

Another issue has been the state’s tilt towards sugarcane farmers, pushed by western Maharashtra’s sugar barons. According to experts, it is time to start watershed development and conservation through building of check dams and farm ponds to improve the ground water table. Also, cropping patterns need to be realigned according to a region’s requirement.

“In drought-prone areas like Marathwada, the state has given approvals to set up sugar factories. Sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop,” said Dr Dwarkadas Lohia, founder of Manavlok, an NGO that has been working with farmers in the region.

Lohia explained that water needed to grow 1 hectare of sugarcane is enough for 12 hectares of a rabi crop. Low returns, high input costs and debt has forced many farmers to sell their lands, adding to the number of marginal farmers in the state (those who have less than 1 to 2 hectares).

Experts said a new policy should be introduced to look into all these areas — accurate weather forecasting, realigning crop patterns, soil testing, providing credit, advanced technology, better supply chain management, among other things. “A robust marketing system should be brought into place.

The first step is to remove the middlemen and directly deal with farmers, who should get assured rates for their produce,” said Dr Syed Shakir Ali, who works with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Baramati.

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