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Aping West imperils farmers

Every time Vidarbha loses one of its farmers, look to global prices for answers, writes Chitrangada Choudhury.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 00:35 IST

Every time, “distressed” Vidarbha loses one of its farmers, look to global prices for answers. For all his tax cuts and free trade rhetoric, George Bush’s America is as Socialist as Putin’s Russia when it comes to its 24,800 cotton farmers.

The cotton growers can dip into a cash subsidy pool whenever the world price index plummets beyond a certain level tfluff their pods — unlike the farmers in Vidarbha, who have to compete without the matching safety nets.

America pays crop insurance to its cotton growers and offers loans to importers. The US subsidy programme runs up an annual bill of $4.7 million (Rs 20,874 crore) says the United Nations Human Development Report for 2005. It works out to Rs 84 lakh per farmer.

And Vidarbha is paying the price. Empty government promises and the cycle of debt aside, this subsidy shield is now one of the biggest liabilities for Maharashtra’s royal money-spinner. Vidarbha’s 1.7 million farmers in northeast Maharashtra grows one-fifth of India’s cotton.

Four months ago, an alarmed Manmohan Singh visited the cotton country to take stock of a tragedy — 600 suicides by farmers — the preceding year. The Prime Minister announced a Rs 2,177-crore aid for the construction of long-pending dams and doles to distressed families for education and health.

The outcome: only 454 farmers killed themselves post Prime Minister’s visit — a monthly average of a little over 100, up from 50 before Singh toured the area. The cotton economy is crumbling, admits Planning Commission member and economist Abhijit Sen, who accompanied the Prime Minister.

“Things can no longer revolve round cotton,” Sen told the Hindustan Times. “Vidarbha needs to look at crop diversification.”

Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s government promised Rs 2,700 per quintal during the 2004 election — but has since reneged, insisting that the state stick to the national average of Rs 1,950 per quintal — the government’s procurement rate.

But National Commission on Farmers’ chairman MS Swaminathan pitches for farmers. “Ensuring a remunerative price— at least 50 per cent more than the farmer’s cost of production — to our growers will help stem suicides,” he told HT.

“This is the government’s basic responsibility.” Swaminathan says raising tariffs on cotton imports to 60 per cent from the current 10 per cent might help push up the depressed cotton prices in India. As the US exports 65 per cent of its produce to India, domestic subsidies stymie the global index. “Why can’t India launch a protective tariff cover for farmers?”

“I wrote thrice to the Centre about it,” Deshmukh told HT on October 21. “But I was told it was not necessary since the cotton imported is not what is grown here.” In response to a faxed questionnaire, the office of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar told HT:

nThe ministry “does not have a view” on import tariffs. It has been recommended by NCF, “but there is no proposal”.

The import tariff will, however, be discussed during a November 18 meeting.

It has to be decided by the Finance Ministry and not the Agriculture Ministry.

Experts feel that India is hedging responsibility towards farmers. Mention “PM’s package” in Amravati’s Dhamangaon — Manmohan Singh’s first stop in Vidarbha, the anger shows.

“Did Singh bother to see what price we are getting for our produce?” asks Babanrao Bhujbal, whose son Raju killed himself in March. His 18-acre farm is no longer an asset. Widow Vanita fishes out a scrawled one-page suicide note she retrieved from her husband’s trouser pocket.

“The government would not fix correct price for cotton and oranges, so did it expect the farmers’ children to steal?”

For all his largesse, the Prime Minister did not address the primary problem: income. Data cites that the state pays 20 to 30 per less for cotton than the Rs 2,400-Rs 2,700, a Maharashtra farmer spends on growing each quintal.

An October state government report to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation admitted: “Farmers have been living with negative returns for years, which has precipitated the crisis.” Commission for Agricultural Costs and Practices Chairman T. Haq told HT: “We agree Rs 1,950 does not cover the costs, especially in Vidarbha where BT has not been a success unlike Gujarat and Punjab.”

First Published: Nov 12, 2006 15:56 IST