Budget 2019: In This Gujarat Village, Distress Lurks Below The Surface
Jhulasan in Gujarat’s Mehsana district, about an hour’s drive north of Ahmedabad, doesn’t betray signs of farm distress. Homes are relatively bigger and roads well paved. A grand temple stands in the central square, partly thanks to generosity of Gujaratis settled abroad. Almost everyone has a relative in the U.S. or Canada, and some of that fortune has trickled back home to the village. Still, most farmers this year filed for government relief after drought damaged crops.
The village is cleaved—between owners of small and big farms, and access to water sets them apart. For the past three years, the canal that fed cotton, wheat, castor and guar bean cultivation has run dry. Large farmers pump out groundwater to irrigate fields and share it with smaller ones for a fee. This year, even that stopped because of depleting aquifers.
Parched fields are aplenty, like Motilal Prajapati’s 0.3-hectare farm—less than half the size of an average football pitch. Last year, he spent Rs 12,000 to sow wheat and earned a Rs 6,000 profit as he could buy water on time. Supply is short this time, Prajapati, 71, told BloombergQuint at his castor field that he hasn’t watered even once. “I’m expecting Rs 4,000 from sales, which will only cover my labour costs,” said the only breadwinner to a family of five including grandchildren after his son’s death. “There won’t be any profit.”
For most farmers in India, fortune swings with monsoon that waters about two-thirds of the nation’s farmland. According to the 2017-18 Economic Survey, about 34.5 percent of the cropped area is irrigated by other means. A good summer rainfall is crucial for everyone from consumer goods makers to auto companies as more than half of India’s workforce is employed in farm and allied activities.
But rains were below the long-period average and patchy last year after two successive years of normal monsoons. That coupled with falling farm prices has triggered rural distress, dragging the country into competitive populism of loan waivers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, smarting from a recent loss in three key heartland agrarian states, is also said to be working on cash handouts to farmers ahead of the next general election.
The majority of 5,000 villagers in Jhulasan are farmers, rear cattle or work as farm hands. A few run small shops or are employed at nearby factories. More than 2,000, especially from the Patel community, have moved abroad or to neighbouring cities for higher education or employment. The most famous connection being American astronaut Sunita Williams whose family traces its roots to the village.
Located in north Gujarat, the village is part of arid western India categorised as ‘large deficient’ by the Indian Meteorological Department—rainfall was 60-99 lower than normal last year. According to an analysis by IndiaSpend, more than half of the 33 districts in Gujarat, including Mehsana, were 20-69 percent rain-deficient.
Since the canal fed by Narmada dam is dry, farmers in Jhulasan have been paying up to Rs 150 an hour to pump water out of a borewell once a month. The scarcity is not new.
Vishabhai Puroshottam, 60, who plants wheat, castor and cotton in rotation on his 0.6-hectare farm, said he didn’t make a single rupee on wheat last year as he didn’t get water on time. “I couldn’t even cover labour and tractor expenses.”
At least 25 farmers BloombergQuint spoke with agreed that water was the biggest uncertainty to their incomes.
In Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat, the drought is quite serious, said Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary and senior fellow at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations—a non-profit think tank. Considering that water is a critical input for agriculture, the government should focus on expeditious completion of projects identified under prime minister’s irrigation scheme (Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana), he said.
Water shortage directly affects farm incomes, said Hussain. Gujarat targets to complete projects that irrigate about 19 lakh hectares by 2019, he said. “That would go a long way in addressing water woes of farmers.”
Confusion And Blame Game
Local panchayat members in Jhulasan blame farmers for their plight. At least 25 farmers need to form a group to demand water, they said.
But villagers said such groups don’t help. The refrain: larger landholders get away with the bulk of the benefits. Dig deeper and you find India’s caste divisions festering. The dominant Patel community and the scheduled castes and tribes don’t appear to find common ground.
There’s also confusion about how much farmers need to pay for water, with different people quoting fee as high as Rs 640 an acre.
MK Jadav, secretary (water resources), Gujarat, said a nominal Rs 280 per acre is charged after they receive water. But, according to him, allocation this year is 30 percent lower than normal because of poor rainfall.
Jadav wasn’t sure why the canal was dry and where does Jhulasan get water from. Multiple queries with the local panchayat and the water department remained inconclusive.
Not surprising then that the village has no water for crops, forcing farmers to seek drought subsidy that they expect by March. Even there, they have run into India’s bureaucracy.
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Want Relief? Get Them Home
Panchayat and government officials want all family members who have a share in the farmland to sign papers to claim relief. The problem is that many of them don’t live in the village anymore.
For Naveen Patel, who has a two-hectare farm, it’s even more difficult. “Two of my sisters are in the U.S.,” he said. “How will I get them back just for a signature.”
Prajapati and Puroshottam are the sole owners but said they haven’t received any payout. “I am aware of all government schemes but the subsidy goes to big farmers,” said Prajapati.
Smita Patel, secretary in the panchayat who assists in providing aid to villagers, again pinned the blame on farmers. “All kinds of subsidies, whether for irrigation, tractors or power threshers, are made available if farmers apply online in April,” she said. “They need to take interest in that.”
To be sure, fertiliser subsidy is passed on as lower market prices—it alone accounts for two-thirds of the government’s subsidy bill and about 2 percent of the GDP. Other incentives include cheaper electricity to draw groundwater and subsidised seeds and pesticides.
The government also sets minimum support prices, though these largely benefit staples like wheat and rice that it buys in large quantities from farmers. There’s also subsidy on farm machinery and imports, besides the drought incentive that is paid in cash.
There are massive leakages and diversion in subsidy distribution and that is one of the reasons, along with lack of awareness, on why benefit doesn’t reach farmers, said Ashok Gulati, agriculture economist and chair professor at the ICRIER. “Direct benefit transfer to bank accounts is the only way to ensure that the benefit reaches farmers.”
Crop Insurance On Paper
Two years ago, Modi announced his ambitious Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme. If a crop fails, farmers have to be paid the difference between the threshold yield and actual produce. It’s compulsory for farmers who avail loans and 2 percent of the sum insured is deducted as premium for kharif (monsoon) crops and 1.5 percent for rabi (winter) produce. Others can volunteer.
“We read about the insurance scheme in papers but nobody has received it yet,” said Prajapati, who is registered for the payout since he took a farm loan. He doesn’t know how to claim it and the panchayat officials didn’t ask him to fill any form.
Even the panchayat secretary was evasive and couldn’t blame this on farmers. Reports and pictures of fields are regularly sent to the government, said Smita Patel. “I am not aware if the farmers got insurance money.”
Naveen Patel, who borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh last year to grow teak, lost the plants because of lack of water. He didn’t get crop insurance money and isn’t hopeful about drought relief either. “The forms are lying at the panchayat office. Who knows when will they forward them to the department and when will we get the money?”