Notes from the land of distress

Notes from the land of distress
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First Published: Fri, Mar 21 2008. 12 20 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Mar 21 2008. 12 20 AM IST
Soon after the presentation of the 2008 Budget that announced the Rs60,000 crore waiver of farm loans, I was flipping through my field notes from a recent visit to Yavatmal. It is one of the bigger districts on the eastern border of Maharashtra. About 21% of its 2.5 million people are tribals. The incidence of farmer distress here is the highest in Maharashtra. I had met about 80 farmers in an effort to understand the local situation.
Janubhau is 48 years old. He tills 10 acres of land—there is an ambiguity about ownership. It’s a joint family: a younger brother, uncle, their kids and the mother. He gave up growing cotton a few seasons ago.
“Not a good crop any longer; you rarely recover input costs. Besides, one plot of 7 acres is not so good. I have switched to soya bean for cash with a small plot of jowar for the family and the cattle. If the nearby nullah does not dry up, you get a bonus of some winter wheat. And, assorted vegetables on an acre of dug-well-irrigated plot—you eat some, sell some; cash rolls in more frequently.”
Janubhau is smart and enterprising. Last year, he took a risk on gram instead of wheat. And it paid off. I convert the array of numbers into his earnings: “It looks like you are pocketing about Rs1 lakh this year?” Maybe less; some soya bean is still not sold (he points to the heap behind me) and prices have already fallen. Janubhau retorts: “Look at all the people here—their education, clothes, kirana, illness, family weddings and much more. Cash just goes away. I have to borrow Rs50,000 at the start of each season. It is a regular affair. Borrow in June. Repay before the next June. Rotation, you see.”
Pritam is 45, a graduate, mathematics major. The family owns 9 acres of land: 6 of it not good and 3 acres of deep black cotton soil. “This one is gold. I can grow just about anything, if only I have water. On rain-fed conditions, cotton is the best bet.” He leases out the bad plot and gets Rs1,500 per acre as rental, received in advance. “A better rate is possible if you agree for credit, but then if the crop fails, the fellow is not going to pay up. The advance helps me buy food.” On his best land he grows Bt cotton, with a small plot for jowar. That’s for additional food security. He manages to harvest about 12 quintals of cotton (with seed) per acre. Others in the area manage one-third of that yield. He owns no assets, not even the quintessential plough. With 100% outsourcing, you are not shedding tears on a hot summer night because you have no fodder for the cattle. Family labour conserves cash on hired hands. “How much debt do you have?” I asked. “Not much. The usual crop loan—formula based at Rs4,000 per acre from the bank. That will be repaid soon, but the loan from some relatives is still pending—sister’s marriage. One cannot run away from the responsibility.”
Ausajee is 38, more a labourer than a farmer. He does own 2 acres of non-irrigated land, but that keeps him busy for not more than three months in a year. On his own plot, he grows jowar— staple food for the family. He is clear about costs. Home inputs, home labour and leave the rest for the gods to figure out. He and his wife work as labourers for about 150 days in a year and that fetches them enough cash to buy what they need. His four kids attend school in addition to helping him on the farm. He does not borrow; there is no need to. He leads an uncomplicated but tough life. My jottings reveal an important concern. What would he do when his kids grow up? School is fine, but beyond that he has a blur in his eyes.
Baburao, 65, appears lost in the woods. The plot of 10-acre land has three claimants—two sons and he himself. With 12 members in the family, including five school-going children, needs are almost limitless. As if to seal his fate, nearly one-third of his land got waterlogged for the past three seasons—not uncommon in this part of Yavatmal. That means net cash outflow to make the land work. Experts have solutions for this kind of land topography, but those have not reached him.
His two daughters are married —his uncle paid for the expenses. Last year, the family figured a sure way to generate cash. One son and his wife must work as labourers all the time. That settled the existence problem. The old man has no clue on what is in store for his grandchildren.
As I run through the notes, I realize that about half the farmers would not be classified as small and marginal—land ownership of less than 2ha. I am aware that I have inadequate data and that, too, with a fuzzy idea of land ownership. I therefore look at the IGIDR study on the farmers’ distress in Vidarbha. This is what I find from a sample survey of 111 distressed households, spanning three districts.
The data shows that 40% of distressed farmers were not from the small and marginal category. With the average land ownership of 6.9 acres, perhaps the Chidambaram-Pawar package is craving to be revisited, at least for the largely rain-fed Vidarbha. If the debt is from family and friends, we have a broader livelihood issue at stake. This debt arises because marriages and illnesses are as much a part of our livelihood as food and fodder are. If the farms were to deliver enough cash to feed the family, educate the children, get them married and also to pay for the medical bills of the sick, the distress would by and large be a non-issue.
My field notes reveal that most of the households, whatever the categorization—small land owner-cum-labourer, large farmer- cum-entrepreneur, indifferent quality land owner, the corporate-type outsourcer—are not on the verge of starvation. Yet, nearly all of them appear hard up on the broader livelihood angle—you do not live just to have enough food for yourself and for the cattle. Access to relevant knowledge and skills—how to get more from the land you happen to own—is really at the heart of the matter. The mathematics graduate seems to have figured out the cotton yield game, but not all are as fortunate to possess the sort of land that he has. Resolving this is like putting some extra cash into each farmer’s pocket. He will then deal with his livelihood in a manner he likes, without any finance minister having to intervene.
The dust on debt will soon settle down. Would it be possible for the delivery of skill and knowledge at the doorstep of each farmer in all earnestness?
That may be a surer route to ensure farmers repay what they borrow.
Avinash Paranjape is an independent economist. Financial support from IWMI-Tata Water Policy Programme for the field research is gratefully acknowledged. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Fri, Mar 21 2008. 12 20 AM IST