March 02, 2016

Odisha Farmers Struggle for Survival

The state and central governments are likely to increase the focus on agriculture in their budgets. But the question remains: when will farmers receive the benefits of all these plans and programmes, and more importantly, how will they overcome the present crisis?

If the previous droughts were painful, the drought in 2015 was disastrous, especially for Bhojbei Majhi of Kuliabandh village in Odisha’s Nuapada district. Bhojbei’s husband, Gaindram, committed suicide in October due to crop failure and the pressures of repaying a loan of 70,000 rupees, including 25,000 from the local cooperative society.

“As the paddy crop he raised in five-and-a-half acres of farm land failed almost completely due to the lack of rain, my husband was disturbed thinking of how he’d manage the family affairs and repay the loan,” Bhojbei said.

After losing the crop and the family’s sole breadwinner, Bhojbei is in dire need of support to look after her seven-year-old son and one-and-half-year-old daughter. The loan still hangs over her head.

Bhojbei is not alone in her suffering. The families of the nearly 200 farmers who committed suicide in the last six months, are looking for an immediate saviour and that want the government to play that role. 

No real solutions 

As its first response to the spate of farmer suicides, while addressing party workers and distressed farmers at a rally in Bargarh district Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced a package of 35,000 crore rupees to be spent on various agriculture related projects over a period of five years. He also reiterated his old promises of two irrigation dam projects in the region and declared a bonus of 100 rupees on every quintal of rice to be sold by farmers in the Mandi (the government regulated paddy procurement centres).

His announcements made little sense to the farmers who were expecting some quick heal measures from the government to help them come out of the distress.

Janakram Sahoo, a farmer of Bargarh district, termed Patnaik’s plans “hopeless” and “politics with people”, and asked “Isn’t it absurd on the part of the CM to imagine that farmers would benefit from his bonus announcement when there was complete crop failure due to drought?”

The biggest shocker came soon after with the state government’s outright denial of crop failure and loan burdens as the cause for farmer suicides in the state. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, in his address to Odisha’s farmers on February 21, invited them to lead the second green revolution in India and advised them to opt for integrated farming, honey bee keeping and timber plantation on the edges of farm land, did not mention the suicides. His fine oratory and high sounding claims about irrigation and the revised crop insurance programmes were of little sense to the farmers as he too did not say anything to provide immediate relief. 

Crisis ignored 

Since the failure of the Kharif (rain-fed) crop, farmers in the state have been living in a very critical phase.

“The lack of water in reservoirs and canals has forced a large segment of farmers to skip the Ravi (summer) crop. Ongoing MNREGA works are insufficient to provide employment to all members of the distressed farming community in the drought-affected districts. Delayed payment of wages is the other issue that dissuades people from joining MNREGA works and encourages them to migrate to neighbouring states as labourers to work in brick kilns,” said Ajit Panda, a Nuapada-based journalist.

“Despite all measures from the government to stop distress migration in the region, roughly over 30,000 people have migrated from Kalahandi, Nuapada and Bolangir during the last six months,” Panda added.

Meanwhile, the Odisha government has proposed to amend the Land Reform Act to extend the benefits of various government programmes to the sharecroppers. Both the state and the central governments have been vocal about protecting the interests of farmers by giving adequate space to agriculture in their forthcoming budgets. But the question remains: when will farmers receive the benefits of all these plans and programmes, and more importantly, how will they overcome the present crisis?

Unfortunately, the governments skip these questions.

This report was published on February 29, 2016, at The Wire.

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