In Vidarbha, First the Skies Dried Up, Then the Government's Promises

Vidarbha, Maharashtra:

First the skies dried up, and then it rained heavily, too heavily for Ramesh Khamankar's cotton crop. In January, the cotton farmer from Maharashtra's Vidarbha region poisoned himself to death.

The crisis that has engulfed this region this year was not just of bad weather, but also one which had its origins miles away from the ruined cotton fields of Vidarbha. Falling demand from China pushed down the global price of cotton - indexed at the New York exchange - by 20 per cent, from 90 cents per pound of cotton link to 70 cents per pound. This meant that Indian farmers who sold cotton last year at around Rs 5,000 a quintal were forced to sell it at Rs 4,000- 4,100 per quintal.

To squeeze even a modicum of crop from their fields, Ramesh Khamankar had invested almost twice the amount, which he - like all farmers here - now had to sell for less.

The Khamankars expected the new BJP government in the state and Centre to keep its promise of a generous support price, of 50 per cent more than the cost of production.

The promise was based on the findings of  the National Commission on Farmers, headed by MS Swaminathan who told NDTV that he hoped this would give farmers, "with their one or two hectares of land some reasonable surplus to provide for other requirements of the family other than food. The rationale was the survival of farming in our country. "

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself echoed the promise of the Swaminathan formula in his election speeches during the 2014 campaign.

Had that formula been applied, the support price for cotton would have come to Rs 6,500 per quintal.

But the government announced a rate of Rs 4,050, which hewed close to the existing lowered market rates.

In east Vidarbha, in what used to be a traditional Congress stronghold, there is anger against the BJP.

"BJP said that they would give more value to cotton, and waive loans, so we voted for them," an angry group of farmers said to us in Yavatmal market. "Where are the acche din for us?"

Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh was evasive. He told us that the government will lower the cost of production itself, by decreasing costs of inputs used by farmers, like fertiliser, pesticides, and so on.

But Ramesh Khamankar's son and wife, who met us in their tiny home in Yavtamal, say these costs have only increased.

Vijay Jawandhia, a member of Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers' organisation, says that even free market economies like the United States heavily subsidise their farmers to protect them from the shock of volatile global prices. "There is heavy subsidy to cotton producers in America, to the tune of $4.6 billion per year."

Mr Swaminathan said he was dismayed that his suggestion had not been accepted. "We are going through the most tragic part of our agricultural history in this country today," he said. "We should do something to improve the economics. After all, for bureaucrats and others, we set up pay commissions every few years and it increases salaries enormously. But what about the farmers who are giving us life?" he asked.