The farmers of Maharashtra's Wardha district are like Sisyphus, condemned to bear the load of agricultural loans for eternity, despite efforts at creative politics by the Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.
About four months ago, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre decided to increase the Minimum Support Price of cotton by nearly 40 per cent, hoping it would get some political traction in the Vidarbha region -- an area notorious for recurrent drought and farmer suicide -- where the Congress-NCP combine managed to win only one seat out of 11 in the 2004 general elections.
The high MSP did not bite: a large number of farmers shifted to soyabean due to high input cost of cotton. This year, they have managed to get only a third of the yield due to a drought-like situation in the region, leaving them exactly where they were earlier: deeply in debt.
In Vidarbha, the area under soyabean has increased from 1,00,000 hectares a decade back to around 2 million hectare during the last Kharif season. Wardha, one of the worst-affected districts in the wake of suicides by cotton farmers, has seen a complete change in the crop pattern over the last few years. During the 2008 kharif season, soyabean was sown in around 600,000 hectares in Wardha, while cotton was sown over just 3,00,000 hectares. There is a substantial drop in production of soyabean this year over last year. While the yield of soyabean from the state last year was around 3.2 million tonnes, it is just 2.3 million tonnes this year.
Devrao Hate, a farmer from the Arvi village in Wardha district who owns 4 acres, said, "I could get an agricultural loan before the start of the last Kharif season because of the loan waiver. However, due to drought-like conditions this year, I managed to get a yield of 1.5 to 2 quintal per hectare with great difficulty. In a year of good monsoon, the yield can go up to 4 to 5 quintals per hectare."
Hate says that unlike soybean farmers in Marathwada, who got compensation from the government, farmers in Vidarbha hardly got any such reward.
Although generally endorsing Datta Meghe, the Congress candidate from Wardha, the farmer says loans or drought do not matter anymore. "It will be the collective decision of the village" that will decide for whom he will vote, Hate said.
Divakar Chavre, another farmer from the Elona village in Yavatmal district, said the grouse of farmers was what it has been all these years: the Vidarbha region needs irrigation. He said unless the monsoon is good this year as well, farmers would not get a good price and things will be back to square one.
Vijay Jawandhia, a leader of Shetkari Sanghatana from the region, said, "Because of good MSP for cotton and farm loan waiver, farmers in the area are somewhat better off, compared to previous years. But this is a temporary phenomenon, as this year too, many farmers will not be able to repay their loans because of the low soyabean crop."
The only permanent solution to this issue, he feels, is to improve irrigation facilities and create mechanism, which will ensure farmers get remunerative prices. Speaking about political implications of the loan waiver scheme, Jawandhia said the NCP seemed to be in a better position to take advantage of the situation as party cadres have usurped all the credit for the loan waiver for their leader, Sharad Pawar.
Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti, has played a crucial role in highlighting the issue of farmer suicides at the national level.
"In the coming general elections, the Congress-NCP combine will do better in those areas where farmers managed to get fresh loans," Tiwari said.