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FIELD EXPERIENCE

Nagpur's hapless farmers

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SORROW FIELDS: Mahalge broods over his cold wave-hit cotton crop

Dilip Kumar Mahalge, a 43-year-old farmer, is a worried man today. But just a week ago, he was optimistic about the future. Even though the kharif crop had been damaged due to unseasonal rains in October and November, above average rainfall meant plenty of water for the rabi crop. He had sown cotton and tuar in his six-acre field.

But tragedy struck on the intervening night of January 6 and 7. The mercury dipped to a 74-year-old low in Nagpur. It was 5. 7 degrees Celsius in the city and in Patansaongi village, 27 km from Nagpur, it was even lower. The dew froze in the night. When Mahalge went to his field after an uncomfortable night, he was horrified to see frost on his plants. The cotton and tuar plants soon started dying.

In six days, the cotton leaves had turned maroon from a healthy green. All hopes of an income from the crop vanished. Now all Mahalge does is lament over his misfortune and worry how he will repay his loans. He owes about Rs 1. 25 lakh to a cooperative bank and another Rs 80, 000 to private moneylenders.

"When you can't repay the loan, you take loan from another person, " he says. "Even though such loans are costlier, it buys time for you. The second moneylender will wait for at least 10 months before demanding his money back. By that time this year's kharif crop will be harvested and I will be able to pay the loan. "

Loans come at a very high interest rate for farmers like Mahalge. While he gets a bank loan at 7 per cent per year, private moneylenders do not part with their money unless you give them at least 4 per cent per month. If the moneylender feels that your paying capacity is more, he may demand even 5 per cent.

"Crop damage has become a regular thing, " he goes on. "If the situation does not improve, I will not be able to provide well for my children. I want my son Rohan to be a government officer and daughter Ritu to get a decent education so that she finds an educated boy with a good job. Rohan will pass XII this summer. His academic record has been quite good. I don't want to send him to the degree college in Saoner (the nearest town). The standard of education is not good. I had planned to get him educated in Nagpur. I don't want Rohan to commute everyday as it will consume two hours. He will not be able to attend coaching classes. "

His wife Savitribai, 36, is equally dejected. "God is harsh on us farmers, " she says. "And the government is just not bothered about us. It's difficult even to meet them. "

Ritu, 14, is aware that these are difficult times. "The whole village is talking about crop damage. Even my friends discuss it sometimes. Most of them want to leave this village as soon as possible. People in Nagpur are earning a lot. But here even the rich farmers have a hard time. "

Mahalge blames government policies and especially union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar for his woes. Even though he does not understand global warming, he is witness to the fact that weather has become unpredictable in the last few years and damaged his crop several times. "Pawar saheb is not bothered about Vidarbha's farmers, " he says. "Cotton, wheat, tuar are apparently not on his radar. He is only bothered about the rich sugarcane and grape farmers of western Maharashtra. "

Mahalge, though, is quick to add that the central government's Rs 70, 000 debt relief package was of great help. "We need another package like that. But a permanent solution has to be found. We don't want to beg for money from the government every time, " he says. His cousin Sharad Tembhurne is as down and out. "We haven't even received any compensation for the crop damage (due to scanty rains) of 2008 and 2009. The one that we suffered two months ago will have to wait, if at all it is taken into consideration, " Tembhurne says. "The crop insurance scheme is a sham. To the best of my knowledge, no farmer has been declared eligible for it. Insurance company officials are accompanied by officers from Nagpur. Local people are just not consulted. What do these city people know about farming?"

Farmer Padmakar Tekade sees hope only in a separate budget for agriculture like railways. "Only then will attention be paid to this sector, " he says.

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