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On their watch: the state & scientists are to blame for Punjab's farm crisis

Devinder Sharma | Updated on: 13 October 2015, 19:51 IST
QUICK PILL

In distress

  • Whitefly has ravaged 75% of Punjab\'s cotton crop
  • At least 17 farmers have committed suicide so far
  • Farmers are up in arms, have blocked trains

Seeking relief

  • The state has announced a relief of Rs 8,000 per acre
  • The farmers want up to Rs 40,000 & Rs 20,000 for labourers
  • Also, they want relief the dead farmers\' kin, MSP for Basmati rice

More in the story

  • How a trade in spurious pesticides and fertilisers has flourished for years in the state.
  • How Haryana\'s women farmers saved their cotton crop from the pest that has ravaged Punjab.

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

First, they took their demands to district administrations but when that didn't evoke any response, they sat on dharna for several days, blocking railway tracks.

Their demands: better compensation for the damaged cotton crop, relief for the kin of farmers who have committed suicide, and minimum support price for Basmati rice whose market rates have crashed.

To end the protest, the government proposed to hold talks within a fortnight. Unsatisfied, the farmers have continued the blockade.

The anger had been building up for quite some time in the country's food bowl.

Bearing the brunt

First, unseasonal rains and hailstorms in April-May flattened the standing wheat crop. At that time, a number of farmers were reported to have died of shock after seeing the extent of the damage.

This was followed by a crash in potato prices, forcing the farmers to give it off for free at various places.

Then, the price of Basmati rice fell to under Rs 1,200 per quintal for the early maturing variety, which two years earlier had fetched a handsome return of Rs 4,000 or more.

If that wasn't enough, the tiny Whitefly, until recently considered a minor pest, took a devastating form to devour nearly 75% of the standing cotton crop. Much of the damage was to the genetically modified Bt cotton; the desi varieties escaped the attack, as expected.

A train from Ferozepur to Bikaner is known as the 'Cancer Train' as it ferries cancer patients

Unable to bear the loss, at least 17 affected farmers have killed themselves so far.

To mitigate the crisis, the state government announced a compensation of Rs 644 crore, which comes to about Rs 8,000 per acre of the destroyed cotton crop.

The farmers, however, want up to Rs 40,000 per acre, and Rs 20,000 each for agricultural labourers working in the fields.

The Times of India estimates the total loss at around Rs 4,200 crore. In neighbouring Haryana, the loss reportedly exceeds Rs 1,500 crore and at least 10 farmers are said to have committed suicide.

What has fuelled the crisis is the blame game that followed the devastation of the cotton crop.

Blaming the victim

Agriculture scientists first tried to blame the farmers and then the agriculture department. Punjab Agricultural University Vice Chancellor B S Dhillon said the pest attack went virulent because the farmers neither followed their instructions' on planting the crop nor sprayed the recommended pesticides.

This infuriated the farmers, who booed him off the stage at two Kisan Melas in Bathinda district and the PAU campus in Ludhiana. At another Kisan Mela in Gurdaspur, irate farmers took over the stage itself.

M S Sandhu, then director of agriculture, said Whitefly had "intruded" from Pakistan, and some senior officers blamed the farmers for spraying plants top downwards rather than root upwards.

Sandhu was recently arrested for his role in an Rs 33-crore pesticides scam, which seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Later, when the state went cracking, pesticide dealers went into hiding and many have reportedly been discarding fake and expired pesticides and fertiliser containers in the Indira Gandhi canal.

Such has been the rampant adulteration of farm inputs that the police have so far booked 18 pesticide firms in Ferozepore district alone. Several senior officials in the agriculture department are under the scanner; fearing arrest, a large number of them have gone on leave.

The demand for the resignation of Agriculture Minister Tota Singh for his alleged involvement in the pesticides scam is gathering steam.

This, however, is not the first time Punjab has been plagued by spurious and sub-standard pesticides and fertilisers. This trade has been flourishing for years, only now the state and the media seem least bothered about it.

A toxic history

Back in the 1980s, when I was an agriculture correspondent with The Indian Express, I had reported on a number of such scandals. I remember reporting how blue ink was being sold as a pesticide for cotton, powdered chalk as DDT for use in malaria eradication programmes, water was sprayed on cotton to control an Aphid attack, and mud was sold as fertiliser.

Still, this unprecedented turmoil hasn't taught the agricultural establishment any lessons. The PAU vice-chancellor still talks of the need to continue with intensive farming practices while the state has been toying with the idea of bi-furcating the agriculture department to form a separate directorate for plant protection.

Unfortunately, what is not being understood is that continuing with the old practices is not the way ahead. Greater use of chemical pesticides, for instance, will only push the farmers deeper into a distressing cycle of having to battle one pest after another

Instead of waiting for another pest to play havoc, I expected our scientists and policy planners to look for sustainable practices that reduce dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilisers. But in vain.

Cotton alone consumes over half the chemical pesticides sprayed in Punjab. And it's primarily due to the excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides that the cotton-belt of Punjab is emerging as a cancer hotspot.

Two years ago, Basmati rice fetched the farmers Rs 4,000 a quintal, now it goes for under Rs 1,200

A passenger train from Ferozepur to Bikaner is locally known as the "Cancer Train" as it ferries cancer patients to and fro. Such, in fact, is the growing incidence of the deadly disease that now a number of "Cancer Jeeps" too operate from Bathinda.

So, what is the answer to this malaise?

For one, a biological method of crop protection perfected by women farmers in Nidana village in Harayana's Jind district. Hundreds of acres of cotton spread over nearly 18 villages in and around Nidana have not been affected at all by Whitefly. Here, farmers do not spray chemical pesticides; instead, they have been using benign insects to control pests.

While a large number of villages are inviting these women for workshops and learning exercises, PAU's agricultural scientists are not willing to learn from them. Probably, they are ashamed of learning from poor farmers. Sooner or later, however, Punjab's cotton farmers will have to adopt the Nidana technique to get off the pesticide treadmill.

Secondly, continuing their protest may get the farmers a higher compensation package for crop damage but that won't address the fundamental crisis afflicting agriculture.

Farmers are being deliberately kept impoverished to provide cheaper raw material for the industry and make cheaper food available to the consumers. They should, therefore, be demanding an assured minimum monthly income package that insulates them from the uncertainty that has gripped farming. A Farmers Income Commission is a crying need.

If this isn't done, don't be surprised if you find farmers taking to the streets every now and then.

First published: 13 October 2015, 19:51 IST
 
Devinder Sharma @Devinder_Sharma

Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst and an award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher.

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