Maharashtra votes 2024: Farmers across state plough through pain of an uncertain future | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Maharashtra votes 2024: Farmers across state plough through pain of an uncertain future

Apr 26, 2024 09:43 AM IST

The past three years have witnessed worst-ever droughts and floods in the state, one following the other that point to a vital shift in the monsoon pattern

In the first flush of excitement at being in power nearly ten years ago, the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis initiated a Vision Plan 2030 for Maharashtra. In agriculture, which provides livelihood to more than half of the state’s population, the vision document promised a growth rate of 5 percent per annum, water-neutral villages, doubling farmers’ income to 2 lakh by 2022, improving crop productivity and yields, reforms in land transactions to attract investment, creating value addition chains and establishing competitive markets.

A grape farmer in Maharashtra's Nashik district. HT Photo Raju Shinde
A grape farmer in Maharashtra's Nashik district. HT Photo Raju Shinde

The last three promise less to farmers and more to private capital investors. This, coupled with climatic disasters occurring almost every year, outlines the state of agriculture in Maharashtra – age-old issues worsened by climate change but same old banalities and projections that look good on paper but mean little on the ground. Three facts illustrate the abysmal agricultural scenario. One, the contribution of agriculture and allied activities to the state’s Gross Domestic Product has decreased by 50 percent over the past five decades with the sector contributing barely 12 percent to the total GDP. Two, the operational holdings are so small that nearly 60 percent are marginal farmers with land holdings of less than two hectares each.

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The third is a story that shook the nation more than 20 years ago but has not abated: farmers’ suicides. An average of eight farmers chose to end their lives every day in 2021, 2022 and 2023 to escape the debt cycle that inevitably comes from falling prices for their produce which, in turn, seals off bank credit and pushes them into the debt trap of moneylenders. Successive governments, irrespective of their political persuasions, have been found gravely wanting to address, including that of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party widely considered as more sensitive to farmers’ issues. The reason: the suicides are the collective cry of farmers, a symptom of the severe agrarian crisis that has worsened. The lack of a comprehensive strategy to address the crisis, rather than provide half-baked “solutions” to suicides, is appalling in itself. It also does not inspire confidence in the state’s polity to tackle the climate change dimension of the crisis.

Maharashtra is among the six states in India to have weathered the entire range of five climatic disasters – drought, flood, heatwave, cold wave, and cyclone – between 1995 and 2020, according to researchers. The past three years have witnessed worst-ever droughts and floods in the state, one following the other that point to a vital shift in the monsoon pattern and intensity contributing to crop losses, low yields and, therefore, losses. True to type, governments whether led by Uddhav Thackeray or Eknath Shinde rushed in with relief packages and schemes. At the last count, there were not less than 20-24 different schemes or programmes for farmers running concurrently funded by the centre, state and institutions like the World Bank.

Instead of fair price for produce and support to build climate resilience in agriculture and horticulture, farmers are doled out a few thousand rupees under one scheme or another. This sentiment shone through in conversations like the one I heard of a farmer from Sangola, Solapur district, with a Bharatiya Janata Party phone campaigner who had called to canvass for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “You give us 2,000 as alms and expect us to vote for the PM? We don’t want alms, we want the right price for crops.”

Addressing this angst calls for recognising multiple realities about the agrarian sector in an intersectional manner and evolving strategies as well as ground-level implementation plans. Governments have seemed reluctant to put their minds to this. For example, what does the falling percentage of land under foodgrains and cereals, from 74 percent in 1960-61 to 52 percent in 2020-21 mean when land under oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane has risen? This shift has happened during the decades when average land holding decreased from 4.28 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.34 hectares, according to the state Agriculture Census; the average size of holding of SC and ST farmers was even smaller.

The shift reflected in the quantity of agricultural produce arriving at Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee markets across the state. Between 2018 and 2021, there was a decline of nearly 33 lakh metric tonnes, according to the Directorate of Marketing, Pune. Regardless of the fate of the three farm laws, the state issued nearly 1,400 direct marketing and 68 private market licenses till January 2022 through an amendment, piloted during Fadnavis’ tenure, in the state APMC law.

The irrigation potential, though marginally increased, is still only 18.2 percent of cultivable area for a largely rain-fed agricultural state. The Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, claimed as Fadnavis’ brainchild to “drought-proof the state by 2019”, has come a cropper. The complaint in most districts was that it was used by wealthy farmers to further control water resources. It has cost the state exchequer nearly 10,000 crore.

The Comptroller and Auditor General Report 2020 revealed that only 29 of the 80 villages declared as ‘water neutral’ were actually so and the demand for water tankers had increased – in some districts, exponentially. With a rise in groundwater exploitation through wells and bore wells, the Abhiyan “…had caused negative impacts on local hydrogeology and had raised concerns on overall water allocation and equity concerns,” noted the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) network. The Water Users Associations of farmers are now being seen as a reform in the critical irrigation sector.

The issues of water availability and access for agriculture and horticulture are set to aggravate as climate impact deepens. In 2018, the state launched the 4,000 crore Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture to increase the adaptive capacity of marginalised farmers. However, the worst climate-affected districts were not included and 60 percent of funds were spent in only three of the districts.

Between 2012 and 2021, twenty of the state’s 36 districts were affected by climatic disasters every year. Increased risk from rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, late onset of monsoon, and intermittent dry and wet spells will affect sowing, growth and harvest across the monsoon (kharif) and winter (rabi) seasons for most crops, noted a study by the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Yet, the last Economic Survey optimistically projected that 10.2 percent growth in agriculture in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

Never mind such right noises, without a climate action plan for agriculture, the persisting issues are set to exacerbate. Even without factoring in climate change, agriculture and horticulture budgetary expenditure declined from nearly 12 percent in 2017-18 to around 6 percent in 2021-22 though the state’s budget doubled. In this, crop insurance schemes have larger allocations than support for seed, pesticides and irrigation support. This says all we need to know.

Smruti Koppikar is an award-winning Mumbai-based journalist and currently the Founder Editor of Question of Cities, an online journal on cities and ecology. This article is part of an 8-segment series about issues that are crucial to Maharashtra’s development.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Smruti Koppikar is an award-winning Mumbai-based journalist and currently the Founder Editor of Question of Cities, an online journal on cities and ecology.

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