Oct 14, 2015

Battered by natural calamities, the market and an apathetic state, Punjab's farmers are up in arms.

                                                                                                                                                    Pic: ICD/CatchNews

Farming in Punjab, the country’s food bowl, is bleeding. Bruised by the continuous battering received since the beginning of this year, irate farmers are up in arms.

First, they held protests in the front of the offices of the district administration. When the district level protests failed to evoke any response, they sat on a dharna for several days demanding a higher compensation for the damaged cotton crop, a minimum support price for basmati rice whose open market prices had crashed and a high relief package for the kin of those who committed suicide. With the talks failing with the Punjab Government, farmers have decided to continue with the agitation. 

Their anger was building up for quite some time. First, unseasonal rains accompanied by hailstorm in the months of April-May had flattened the standing wheat. A large number of farmer suicides were reports with many farmers dying of shock after looking at the extent of damage caused. This was followed by a crash in potato prices forcing farmers to distribute potato free of cost at various places. The prices of basmati rice were the next to slump, with farmers not being able to get more than Rs 1,200 per quintal for the early maturing variety. Two years earlier, basmati had fetched a handsome return of Rs 4,000 per quintal or more. 

And as if this is not enough, whitefly, a tiny insect, which was till recently considered a minor pest, took a devastating form to devour nearly 75 per cent of the standing cotton crop. Much of the damage was on Bt cotton, the genetically-modified strain. As expected, the desi varieties had escaped the whitefly attack.    

Punjab had announced a maximum compensation of Rs 644-crore, which comes to Rs 8,000 per acre for those whose cotton crop has been ravaged by the insect. Farmers are demanding a higher compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre, and Rs 20,000 for agricultural labourers working on the fields. 

The Times of India (Oct 8, 2015) estimates the total loss in cotton in Punjab to be around Rs 4,200-crore. Whitefly damage has also led to 17 farmer suicides in Punjab till the time of going into press. In neighbouring Haryana, at least 10 farmers have died and the loss exceeds Rs 1500-crore.

What fuelled the crisis was a blame game that followed. As it normally happens, agriculture scientists first tried to blame the farmers and then blamed the agriculture department. Punjab Agricultural University Vice Chancellor B S Dhillon went on to say that the insect attack went virulent because farmers did not spray the crop with the recommended pesticides, and neither did they follow the right instructions. This infuriated the farmers, who wooed him off the stage at two kisan melas held in Bathinda district and later at the PAU campus in Ludhiana. Later, irate farmers took over the control of the stage at another kisan mela in Gurdaspur.

Meanwhile, Dr M S Sandhu, then director of agriculture said that the whitefly pest had intruded into Punjab from Pakistan, and some senior officers blamed farmers for spraying plants with tractor-loaded sprays which should have actually been done from root upwards. Director of Agriculture was later arrested for his role in an Rs 33-crore pesticides scam, which is nothing but a tip of the iceberg. Later, when the state government went cracking, pesticides dealers are on the run and many have reportedly been throwing fake and expired pesticides and fertilizer containers in the Indira Gandhi canal. This shows how flourishing the trade in spurious fertilizer and pesticides has been all these years.

This is not the first time when Punjab has been plagued by spurious, fake and sub-standard pesticides and fertilizers. Just because the media is no longer into an investigating mode, such cases have largely gone unreported. I myself had reported a number of scandals in Indian Express at a time when I worked as its Agriculture Correspondent. This was in the 1980s, and I still remember reporting how blue ink was being sold as a pesticide for spray on cotton. Powdered chalk was sold as DDT to be used in malaria eradication programme. Water was sprayed to control aphid attack on cotton, mud being sold as fertilizer, and so on. 

Such has been the rampant adulteration of farm inputs that the police have so far booked 18 pesticide firms in Ferozepore district alone. Many senior officials in agriculture department are now under the scanner. Fearing arrest, a large number of agricultural officials have proceeded on leave. The demand for the resignation of the Agriculture Minister Total Singh for his alleged involvement in the pesticides scam is building up.

The unprecedented turmoil on the farm has however failed to throw up any lessons. While PAU vice-chancellor still talks of the need to continue with intensive farming practices, I find the State Government has been toying with the idea of bi-furcating the department of agriculture to form a separate directorate for plant protection. Unfortunately, what is not being understood is that continuing with business as usual is not the way ahead. More of the same, which means more application of chemical pesticides, is only going to push farmers deeper and deeper into a chakravyuah. Instead of waiting for another pest to play havoc, I had expected scientists and policy planners to look for sustainable practices that reduce the dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Cotton alone consumes more than 50 per cent of the chemical pesticides sprayed on cotton in Punjab. It is primarily for the excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides that the cotton-belt of Punjab is emerging as a cancer hotspot. A passenger train from Ferozepur to Bikaner is popularly being called as Cancer train as it ferries cancer patients to and fro. Such is growing incidence of the deadly disease that nowadays a number of cancer jeeps too operate from Bathinda.

The answer lies in a biological method of crop protection perfected by women farmers in Nidana village in Jind district in Haryana. Hundreds of acres of cotton spread over nearly 18 villages in and around Nidana have not been affected at all by the whitefly pest. Farmers do not spray chemical pesticides and have been using benign insects to control pests. While a large number of villages are inviting these women farmers for workshop and learning exercises, PAU agricultural scientists are not willing to learn from poor farmers. Probably they feel ashamed to learn from farmers. Sooner or later, cotton farmers will have to adopt the Nidana technique to get out of the pesticides treadmill.

Secondly, continuing farmers protest may get them a higher compensation package for crop damage. But this will not address the fundamental crisis afflicting agriculture. Farmers are being deliberately kept impoverished so as to make available cheaper food to the consumers and provide cheaper raw material for the industry. Farmers should therefore be demanding an assured minimum monthly income package that insulates them from the uncertainty that continues to grip farming. A Farmers Income Commission is the crying need. Otherwise I will not be surprised if you find farmers back on the streets every now and then. #

On their watch: The State and scientists are to blame for Punjab's farm crisis. Catch News. Oct 14, 2015. http://www.catchnews.com/india-news/on-their-watch-the-state-scientists-are-to-blame-for-punjab-s-farm-crisis-1444745017.html

1 comment:

Priya VK Singh said...

When a newspaper like TOI makes an estimate of the crop loss, what are the parameters it relies on? In other words, what is the basis of the estimated loss of Rs 4200 crore?