Vijay Jawandhia, 61, is a founder-member of the Shetkari Sanghatana, one of Maharashtra’s largest farmer organizations. He is also president of the Kisan Coordination Committee, a national coalition of farmers organizations, and campaigns for the rights of farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, where the spate of suicides continues. In many ways, the problems of farmers in Vidarbha are indicative of the malaise in Indian agriculture. He spoke to Sukhmani Singh of Mint in Mumbai earlier this week. Excerpts:
You come from Vidarbha, known as the suicide capital of India. Is indebtedness the main cause of suicides there?
Farmers were always indebted. Someone has correctly said that a farmer is born in debt, lives in debt and dies in debt. I think this is the situation all over India also. But there were no suicides earlier. The reason is that cotton fetched high prices then. In 1972, it was called the white gold of Vidarbha even though the yield was less. It fetched the same price as gold. The first suicide here occurred in 1985.
What went wrong?
We were getting Rs2,500 per quintal for cotton since 1991. But then prices in the international market started falling and dropped to Rs1,600 per quintal. The monopoly procurement scheme in Maharashtra stopped because of the fall and cheap cotton import. The first suicides of cotton farmers took place in Andhra Pradesh.
The government has announced huge relief packages for Vidarbha. Why isn’t that helping?
They have failed to address the root cause of the problem. The packages announced by the Central and state governments are not designed to help farmers. The figure announced by the Prime Minister sounds very impressive—Rs4,200 crore. But only about Rs700 crore, which is an interest waiver, actually helps the farmer. The rest is for irrigation projects, drip irrigation projects, seed subsidies...
Actually, even the money for irrigation is enough to irrigate just 1.5 lakh hectares. This will leave 90% of the land unirrigated. The package does not address the root cause of farmer suicides: and those are prices and subsidies.
So you see a direct link between subsidies and farmer suicides.
I see a direct link between prices and cost of production. International farm subsidies are definitely killing Indian farmers.
Technology to increase yields is being touted as the solution for the agrarian crisis. Do you agree?
No. After a tour of Vidarbha, Prof. M.S. Swaminathan (a well-known agricultural scientist) recommended that the government should restore the advance bonus given to cotton farmers, which it had withdrawn, but the government did not listen to him. Imagine the psychological effect on a person whose salary is reduced from Rs15,000 to Rs10,000. Technology is one part of the problem, not the solution. What happens if I spend money on technology and increase my production and then get low prices for my produce?
There is a stark difference between the prosperity of western Maharashtra and the lack of it in Vidarbha. Why?
Western Maharashtra is very well irrigated. And most of the water is used for sugar cane, which is an assured crop, whereas cotton is a very risky crop. Farmers there shifted from cotton to sugar cane, backed by policy support.
The state gives heavy subsidies for sugar-cane production. All the subsidy for irrigation, canal irrigation, drip irrigation and fertilizers has been cornered by sugar-cane farmers because they use more fertilizer per acre.
The irrigation-deprived farmer in Vidarbha gets no subsidy from either the Centre or the state government.
Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar says people in his constituency, Baramati, are very happy to sell their land to the auto industry. What about farmers in Vidarbha?
If this policy of the government continues, farmers will be happy to sell their land. But again it is a question of prices. Farmers in Baramati are getting Rs50 lakh per acre, but in my area, the rate is Rs1-2 lakh per acre.
About 40% of farmers would quit agriculture if they had a choice. But nobody wants our land. Government policy advocates giving non-irrigated land for special economic zones. Why don’t they buy our land?