Small and marginal farmers across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana struggle to cope with the agrarian crisis that worsened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With lockdown in many states, agriculture labourers found it difficult to get work even as the demand for work under MGNREGA (government’s employment guarantee scheme) saw a dip of 25% in May as compared to last year.
Falling prices for agricultural produce, lack of market access, unseasonal rains, pending dues from sugarcane factories, rising fuel and fertilizer costs have impacted the farmers ahead of the Kharif sowing season. Besides, the pressure from banks to repay crop loans seems to be adding to their woes.
Raghavendra Naik, 40, a third-generation farmer from Baswad village in Karnataka’s Belagavi district, cultivated sugarcane crop in three acres of land. He harvested and sold the crop in January to Nirani Sugars and Satish Sugars, both owned and controlled by politicians hailing from the district. But since then, Naik has been waiting for the payment, nearly Rs 80,000 due from these companies.
According to Kurubur Shantakumar, president of All India Sugarcane Growers Association, the sugar companies in the state owe nearly Rs 1,000 crore to farmers and as per the government own estimates, dues worth Rs 650 crore are pending since January this year.
“Had the companies released payment on time, it would have helped us to spend for the next cropping season. Following the delays, I have taken a crop loan of Rs 80,000 in February,” Naik said.
For Naik, the loan he took and spent on the next crop, tomato and other vegetables, resulted in a setback as the prices crashed and lockdown impacted the market access. Naik says, if the prices hadn’t crashed to less than a rupee per kg, he could have earned a profit of Rs 2 lakh on the same. But now, the crash in prices and lack of market access resulted in a loss of Rs 50,000- Rs 60,000.
“The government says APMCs are open. But most of the time, the traders do not come to the auction. And as per the new laws, the government said we can sell outside APMCs to anybody and benefit from it. But who is there to buy during the lockdown?” he asks.
Across Karnataka, several farmers were forced to leave their harvest on the field or destroy the crop for their inability to sell it in the markets. The price of cabbage had dropped to Rs 2 a kilogram. Similar was the case with flower growers. As the demand slumped, farmers in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra destroyed large tracts of cultivated crops.
The Karnataka government had initially announced a 14-day ‘close down’ starting April 27. But as the COVID situation worsened during the second wave, the government subsequently imposed a lockdown in the state until June 14. Farmers resorted to distress sale left with no choice.
Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa announced a relief package, promising Rs 10,000 compensation per hectare of land, limited to one hectare. But farmers, many of whom did not receive the relief package, are wary of the government’s announcement and say the money can barely cover the losses they have incurred during the period.
“Government officials in the horticulture and agriculture department remain absent. So who do we question? The opposition parties are dead as we see them making no noise amid the crisis. With lockdown, we can’t even organise protests,” said Sidagoud Modagi, a farmer.
The State Planning Board last month recommended that the State Government should procure vegetables and fruits from farmers in distress due to the lockdown and make arrangements to sell the produce in urban areas. However, such a plan did not materialise in reality.
In Telangana, with the government failing to procure jowar, farmers took to the streets to protest and approached the High Court with a public interest litigation (PIL) on the matter. They sought the Court to direct the State government to procure the jowar crop at MSP.
The PIL notes that farmers in Adilabad decided to cultivate jowar as a rabi crop after they suffered losses with cotton crop infested with pink bollworm attack. It further said, while the MSP for jowar was fixed at Rs 2,660 per quintal this year, the market value remained at Rs 1,100 to Rs 1,400 per quintal, which made it difficult for them to sell it even in the open market.
In Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, the unseasonal rains in May damaged paddy crops and the lack of storage facilities left paddy bags drenched in rainwater. In government storage centres at Thoppur, nearly 10,000 paddy bags were drenched in the rain even as officials promised to address the issue.
Meanwhile, with lockdown in place across several southern states, even agriculture labourers found it difficult to get work and earn their bread and butter. Besides, the demand for MGNREGA jobs too dwindled. The jobs sought were down by 26% in May as compared to last year in the same period.
For Lakshmi, a farm labourer in Arani, Tamil Nadu, MGNREGA job acts a saviour in summer times when she does not find agriculture labour work. But with lockdown and second wave raging, the authorities have told her that those aged above 45 will not be eligible to work. “I barely worked for 5 days last month. Soon after lockdown was imposed and I was barred from working under the scheme as I was 60. So, how do they expect us to make a living,” she asked.