When paddy turns poison
Farmer kills himself as harvest is rich but no one to buy
Bhandara/Yavatmal, June 26: When he drank poison on January 11, farmer Hargovind Harne’s run-down hut was bursting with freshly harvested paddy. Yet he was neck-deep in debt.
Even the bottle of pesticide that he used to take his own life had been bought on credit, as the bill shows.
His large stock of grain wasn’t the only puzzle in the 47-year-old’s suicide. Vidarbha is infamous for continuing suicides by cotton farmers but Harne grew food, not cotton.
A silent epidemic, however, has gripped food-grain cultivators not just in Vidarbha but across central India’s rain-fed belt. This year, many of them have suffered huge losses despite a good crop, and despite the food inflation in the markets.
There are no buyers for their grain or pulses. The government isn’t buying because its godowns are crammed with the old crop — a fallout of the delay over the food security bill.
Till the bill is spelt out and implemented, the Centre cannot work out how much food stocks it will need. So, it is holding on to what it has and has banned exports.
The big private traders aren’t buying from the farmers, either, because they largely stock their grain in the government silos, which are bulging. So, while inflation rages, the farmers have only managed to sell a little paddy to small-time local traders at Rs 750-850 a quintal, far below the support price of Rs 1,050.
But these traders can buy only a little. The rest of the crop is stashed at the farmers’ homes and might rot in the rain over the next few months.
In Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 25,000 tonnes of rice procured by cooperative societies are lying in the open.
“It’s difficult to carry on,” a distraught Harne, a postgraduate in Marathi literature, scribbled in his signed parting note. “I have unpaid loans.”
Harne was meticulous in keeping records. His ledger showed he had suffered losses of about Rs 10,000 for each of the six acres he cultivated ---- Rs 60,000 in all. Together with his outstanding loans of around Rs 2.5 lakh, the going had looked tough.
Five months on, the situation is equally grim for his frail widow, Ashwinibai, at Songaon village in eastern Maharashtra’s Bhandara district. “We had to sell our paddy at a throwaway price,” she said.
The rabi season that ended in April produced a record 84 million tonnes of grain across the country. But data till April 21 suggest that the Food Corporation of India, the country’s main procurement agency, was short by 52 per cent of what it had procured in the same period last year.
Yet, in early June, India had about 67 million tonnes of grain (mostly rice and wheat) in its godowns, more than its storage capacity of 63 million tonnes and far above the buffer of 40 million tonnes.
The food ministry says the government plans to increase its procurement to 80 million tonnes in 2011-12 without any additions to storage capacity.
Ashok Gulati, the chairman of the Commission of Agriculture Costs and Pricing, recently warned the Centre that it needs to clear its grain silos before the kharif harvest arrives in the markets three months from now, else there could be a worse crisis.
One remedy, experts say, is to allow exports. The other is to have the grain distributed among the poor before it rots.
If central India is reeling, even farmers in the grain basket of Punjab and Haryana are struggling to sell their crop. So depressed are the prices that paddy growers in Andhra Pradesh recently declared a “crop holiday” for the pre-kharif season, deciding not to grow the summer crop.
One ray of hope is that a panel headed by Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen is studying the economics and logistical feasibility of building a sufficient number of modern grain silos through public-private partnerships.
M.S. Swaminathan, widely regarded as the father of India’s Green Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, had long ago recommended a national grid for grain storage, stretching from the farm level to large rural godowns to about 50 regional ultra-modern silos.
Across central India, thousands of quintals of unsold tur are piled up at farmers’ homes although the country faces a shortage. India is expected to import 3.4 million tonnes of tur this financial year to “plug the demand-supply gap”, the food ministry says.
Even though the retail prices are still high, the farmers are being forced to sell their lower-grade pulses at Rs 1,500 a quintal and the higher grades at Rs 2,450, down from the Rs 5,000 and Rs 6,500-7,000 last December.
“I thought tur prices would go up because we have a shortage,” said Pravin Thakare, a three-acre farmer, in Yavatmal’s Gawara village. He has about 15 quintals of tur left at his home; the entire village is stuck with about 400 quintals.
“I have to now borrow money from private lenders to prepare for the kharif crop since the banks are yet to begin loan disbursements,” Thakare said.
Harne’s widow Ashwini too is struggling amid the debt and distress as she takes to farming to try and rebuild her life. The family had suffered a double blow when, the day after Harne’s suicide, his ailing father Bajirao died of a heart attack.
Ashwini, with daughter Gayatri clinging to her, said she had sold 15 quintals of paddy after setting a little aside for the family. “At Rs 825 a quintal,” she said, about a fifth less than the support price.
This coming season, she hopes, both the monsoon and the markets would be kind. “I would tell my husband not to worry and that the bad days would end,” she said, fighting back tears. “I now try to remind myself of the same thing.”