Between land and a hard place: ‘Big-ticket projects’ hurting Maharashtra farmers

More and more farmers are falling into debt trap because farming is no longer profitable and big-ticket infrastructure projects are taking away their lands.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2017 10:55 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Nasik, Hindustan Times
Farmers' protest,Farmers' unrest,Mandsaur firing
The Waghchowre family work on their 5-acre farm in Pimpalgaon Dukre village, in Nashik district. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

Shantaram Waghchowre’s worries are multiplying. Already hit by plunging prices for the crops he grows in his five-acre family farm in Maharashtra’s Pimpalgaon Dukre village of Nasik district, he is now staring at abject penury.

The state government is set to acquire 50,000 acres of land for the Rs 46,000-crore Mumbai-Nagpur super communication highway to bring development to the backward regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada, but Waghchowre fears it will spell doom for him and his family.

The proposed eight-lane highway would eat up four acres of his land holding. “We survive and get by because of our land. You take this away from us and we are left with nothing. Not even hope,” rues Waghchowre.

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Sharing his apprehension are 3,700 farmers in Nasik alone who have registered their objections after receiving the government notification for acquisition of their land. Incidentally, 84% of the land earmarked for the highway project is agricultural.

Already caught in the spiral of high input costs and diminishing returns, the highway project is another reason for disquiet among local farmers. The recent farmers’ protests in north Maharashtra were triggered by the government’s land acquisition policies among others.

“Not just this expressway, but all big-ticket projects cheat farmers,” said Ulka Mahajan, an anti-land acquisition activist who had led the protests against the Mahamumbai Special Economic Zone in Raigad. Many farmers agree that road projects such as the Mumbai-Nasik highway will essentially leave them by the wayside.

Their list of grievances against the government is long. Top among them is the administration’s alleged lack of transparency in land acquisition. Farmers say no social impact assessment was done and the issue of compensation to landless labourers was ignored.

They are also not impressed with the price – four times the current market rate – that the government is offering selectively. “Our land is irrigated and we can grow crops the whole year round. I don’t think you can put a price on that in Maharashtra,” said Dhanaji Waghchowre, Shantaram’s brother.

Farming has mostly ceased to be profitable, pushing more and more farmers into a deadly debt trap. According to estimates, 1,129 farmers committed suicide between January and May this year. Majority of these suicides are from Vidarbha and Marathwada, where farmers practice dryland farming. And many of those who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods don’t want to give up their lands because there’s no viable alternative. The three Waghchowre brothers are among them.

As far as Shantaram remembers, the last time he made a killing was in September 2013. Then, he had got Rs 5,000 for a quintal of onions. Belonging to the vegetable belt of Nasik, Shantaram made a cool Rs 2.5 lakh by selling his 50 quintals onions to the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC).

Prices have gone downhill since, and so has his financial well-being. “2013 was the best thing to have happened…This year the price is down to Rs 350 a quintal. I won’t even recover my input costs,” he said.

Farmers spill milk on the road during a demonstration protest over various demands in Nasik. (PTI FILE PHOTO)

With onions bringing him tears, he has scaled down his ambitions. “A farmer lives on hope. I won’t plant onions across my five acres but half an acre is my gamble. Something might pay off,’’ he said. Nearly 40 quintals of unsold onions lie covered under a tarpaulin outside his mud and thatched house adjacent to his field.

Onions, however, are just one of Shantaram’s many problems. November’s demonetisation hit the family hard and curtailed their access to cash. Then ready-to-harvest tomatoes were lost in a hailstorm in May, resulting in a loss of Rs 40,000. The family thereafter also lost one of its bullocks and the tilling of land in the new sowing season suffered a setback.

The Waghchowres are the typical small Maharashtra farmer with three brothers and their families living off the five-acre field. But what separates them from the rest is their irrigated land, courtesy a well and a pipeline that brings water from the Kadwa river nearby. Not every Maharashtria farmer is as lucky, with only 18% of land tilled in the state being irrigated.

Report card
This is what a Maharashtra farmer got from his farm this year,SS a reason for his anguish
Soil quality No soil health card yet from the government
Water source: Irrigated by a well and a direct pipeline from the river nearby
Note: This year has been good but in the past, they have faced problems in getting payments on time

Shantaram and his two brothers feel that though life isn’t exactly good, it could have been much worse without the land. Besides onions, they grow tomatoes, brinjals and sugarcane. Their field is normally lush green even at the height of summer. But that does not necessarily translate into a windfall as there are too many imponderables plaguing the farm sector, including unseasonal rains, pest attacks and price fluctuations.

Shrinking profits and heightened unpredictability have put the family in a quandary. The money the brothers make is just enough to feed the family of 10, but inadequate to service their debts. A far bigger challenge at the moment for them is to get Dhanaji’s daughter Suvarna into a college.

The girl has just passed Class 12, the first to do so in the family, but is facing an uncertain future.

“Where will a farmer get Rs 70,000 by the end of the year for college expenses?” asked her mother Sunita. Despite bountiful production, hope is in short supply among farmers of Maharashtra.

This is the second part of HT’s series, #BeingaFarmerNow. Part 1 focused on the new age farmers of Madhya Pradesh.

First Published: Jun 20, 2017 07:58 IST