Their calloused hands tell the story of their life — the hard work seldom leads to a bountiful harvest.
Erode-based Arachalur Selvam has spent much of his adult life waiting for his crops to grow into sacks full of money. But that has hardly been the case. Hit by the lockdown, Selvam was hoping for some relief from the government. Instead, he says, the government has dished out a menu for a feast in the unseen future.
“We were asking for immediate relief — a handful of rice to satiate our hunger. But the government says it is preparing a feast for us to be served in the future,” Selvam describes the agricultural measures announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Farmers and farmers’ organisations in Tamil Nadu have taken different stands over the announcements by Sitharaman. While organisations have welcomed the move, individual farmers are disappointed. Their immediate concerns are the bank loans and losses incurred because of the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19.
“Most of the announcements will do good to the farmers only if they are implemented in letter and spirit,” says PR Pandian, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Cauvery Farmers’ Association.
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For instance, he added, take the case of transport subsidy. “We have to transport goods by lorries to various places. Who will fix the rent for lorries? How much subsidy will a farmer get? How will it be calculated? Will the subsidy be paid in cash or will it come under direct benefit transfer? These things need to be addressed.”
Although the announcements sound good to the ears, it will take considerable time to implement them.
“But farmers need some kind of immediate relief. The government should waive debts, give compensation to farmers who are unable to sell their produce and are destroying them. It must also distribute new loans.”
Pandian has more concerns such as the government’s decision to allow online trading. “If online marketing is allowed in agriculture, it will largely benefit big businesses, including multinational companies.”
Economist A Narayanamoorthy, however, sounds hopeful. Narayanamoorthy, who has also served as a member of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices in the past, says the “reforms were long-pending demands that have finally seen the light of day”.
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“We had been demanding such reforms for many years. Particularly, the amendments in the Essential Commodities Act is a very good move. It is a draconian law.” Although there will be a limit in stocking goods, Narayanamoorthy believes, it will encourage private companies to enter the agricultural sector and make some investments.
Earlier moving agricultural goods from one state to another was a problem. Now, a farmer can move the goods to a lucrative market. It will be a mutual benefit for farmers and consumers, he tells The Federal.
“Until now, we had focused on production. That helped the government to an extent. Now, the government’s focus is market-centric and it will help farmers to a large extent. Besides these announcements, the government should also provide interest-free bank loans for at least a year,” he adds.
But unlike Narayanamoorthy, PK Deivasigamani, all-India president of the Turmeric Farmers’ Association of India in Erode, feels the new measures are unlikely to taste any success.
“If there is a market, there is a competition between auctioneers. The farmers could get a good price. Due to the crisis induced by COVID-19, there is no market. So we are selling the products for whatever price the consumer quotes.”
He cites the example of farmers from Krishnagiri district who sold their produce at the Bengaluru border. “The transportation cost borne by each farmer was around ₹7,000, but could sell the produce for only ₹5,000. This is the condition of farmers right now. How can these reforms help them?” he asks.
Deivasigamani strongly believes that intermediaries are necessary to protect the farmers. “The country has 82% of small and marginal farmers. They have 3-4 acres of lands. Will the farmer do farming here or will he go to Punjab to sell his goods?”
“Even there, the farmer will sell it to a businessman. Will he be able to sell it directly to consumers? If the products are not sold there, what will he do?”
So, Deivasigamani adds, locally-produced goods must be sold locally. “Without depending on intermediaries, farmers cannot market their produce. If a farmer concentrates on marketing, who will take care of farming?”
Talking about the amendments to the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act, Deivasigamani says until the government fixes the minimum support price, these amendments won’t do any good to farmers.
“Before the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, (the then-Chief Minister) Chandrababu Naidu announced ₹6,000 for turmeric per quintal. While (former Tamil Nadu chief minister) Jayalalithaa announced ₹4,000, Karnataka announced ₹5,000. Sensing that if prices go down, the governments will take the goods, the intermediaries increased the price to over ₹6,000. If there is a bumper harvest and the prices come down, what guarantee does the government give that the produce will be taken by a private company?”
Trichy-based banana farmer and vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Banana Growers’ Association, ER Mohan, dismisses the role of agricultural marketing companies.
“They fix prices according to what intermediaries say. Besides, they also take a commission from farmers. Most farmers lack skills in marketing and language. So they are unable to go to other states and market their produce. Hence, we depend on intermediaries.”
However, it’s insurance money that Mohan is worried over. “In the recent rains, we lost acres of banana crop. But one can avail insurance only if the whole area gets destroyed (by a calamity), not to individual farmers. Even then companies don’t fail to collect the premium from us.”
(This story is part of a series on Farm Matters)