The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tempers boil in bread basket
- Wheat farmers feel shortchanged as grain prices remain static for two years

Moga, April 20: India may be shining elsewhere but not in this tiny market town deep in the heart of the country’s bread basket.

“The wheat harvest is bountiful... but that doesn’t help us. The more wheat we grow, the more money we seem to be losing,” says Talwinder Singh, 42, a Sikh farmer who has driven down from his village Dalawalpur to sell his crop at the market here.

“The politicians will reap an angry harvest from among us this time round,” says Singh grimly as he counts aloud the money grain dealer Joginder Singh Nausherawala has paid him.

Costlier fertilisers, power and water have meant that Talwinder spends Rs 4,000 for every acre of wheat he has grown on his eight acre farm while grain prices determined by the central government have remained static over the last two years.

“After paying interest on old loans I took from Nausherawala, I will take home just Rs 22,000 for the 130 quintals I have grown on my eight acres,” he says.

This, says Talwinder, is at least 20 per cent less than what he was taking home five years ago. “And the cost of everything we buy from the market has gone up in the meantime... diesel costs have doubled, power was free earlier, now we pay for it, water hardly trickles into my fields but I still have to pay cess, tractors which used to cost Rs 2.5 lakh now cost Rs 4.5 lakh.... Yet they refuse to increase the prices of wheat and paddy. Are we to starve so that you cityfolk can have cheap bread'”

The Centre’s own statistics prove Talwinder’s point. Latest data compiled by agriculture ministry economists show real farm incomes have nosedived during the last five years because of the rising cost of farming.

North Indian wheat farmers spread over Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, who can make or break political fortunes in Delhi, have seen their real earnings erode by 10 per cent over these five years.

“I have told my sons whatever else you do, don’t become a farmer in India. Go abroad, wash dishes, sweep streets... at least you will be better off,” Talwinder fumes.

Akali Dal workers in Punjab hoping to emerge from the political wilderness are trying to drum up this anger. Ironically, the Akalis have accused the ruling Congress of not lobbying successfully with the National Democratic Alliance government, of which the Dal is a part, to hike the price at which government agencies buy grain from farmers.

Travel 250 km east and one hits the sprawling dusty town of Kurukshetra, which derives its fame from the Mahabharata battle. The mandi on the outskirts and large parts of the town proper have been taken over by farmers and their families in their colourful best astride tractors and tractor trailers.

“See those people come here today to sell grain and celebrate. They look happy. But see their faces again tomorrow when they pay off merchants from whom they have been buying provisions on credit for the last few months — they will be just as long as a horse’s,” says Ranbir Singh, 34, a farmer who tills about 10 acres at Nagla Jagir village along with his brothers.

Farmers have sunk deeper into debt despite a nationwide fall in interest rates. “Bank loans are difficult to access and kisan credit cards which the televisions keep talking about haven’t been given to everyone,” says Ranbir.

Grain merchants, who double up as moneylenders, still lend at 36-42 per cent a year compared with banks which lend at 9-11 per cent. “We are still tied to the aarthia’s (grain merchant’s) apron strings,” complains the farmer.

“We are never debt-free now. Every year you need more fertiliser, more pesticides to get the same or even less yield because the land quality has started deteriorating. And these are getting costlier. Urea prices alone have gone up by a third to over Rs 4,800 a tonne from what it was four years back,” chips in Ranbir’s neighbour, Dharamvir.

Farmers say the 1970s and 1980s were the golden years, with indebtedness low and prices rising. Input cost increases were also less volatile. “Farming was profitable then, not now,” says Ranbir.

Agronomists at Kurukshetra University agree. Yields, which had peaked at an average of about 20 quintals to the acre in this area, have started falling and desperate farmers have started using more fertilisers, water and other inputs to keep yields high.

The anger is directed at the ruling Haryana party — the Om Prakash Chautala-led Indian National Lok Dal — and the BJP at the Centre.

“The Haryana Vikas Party and the Congress will gain this time round but we will change that too if things don’t improve after the elections,” Dharamvir, Ranbir’s neighbour, says.

The angry winds blowing across farms in the northern states, which began a green revolution in the 1960s that transformed them into India’s granary, could seal the fate of many a sitting parliamentarian and also affect the fortunes of those in Delhi.

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