Farmers are demanding a minimum support price for their harvest as a safety net for erratic price fluctuation
By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Dec 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian farmers ended a year of protests on Thursday after winning unexpected concessions from government that have raised hopes of higher earnings for the poorest growers.
Farmers had blockaded the capital New Delhi to protest government plans to deregulate a sector that employs nearly half the country's 1.3 billion people, arguing the reforms threatened their livelihoods.
The government abandoned its plans last month, but thousands of farmers remained camped out on highways until Thursday, when authorities agreed to a key demand to extend a system of guaranteed crop prices, according to a letter seen by Reuters.
"For marginalised farmers, there are no loans, no crop insurance, no access to government schemes or fair price," said Kishore Tiwari, head of the Vidarbha Jan Aandolan Samiti, a charity working for farmer welfare in Maharashtra state.
"Debt-ridden farmers have been committing suicide for decades now. It is high time there was some government intervention and a legal support price would be a start."
Currently, the government mainly buys rice and wheat at minimum support prices (MSPs), but the safety net benefits barely 6% of farmers.
India first introduced MSPs in the 1960s to encourage farmers to grow high-yield varieties of wheat and rice, but it was not legally guaranteed.
In 2018-19, less than a quarter of rice and under 3% of other crops, such as millet and sorghum, was sold under MSP terms and Ajay Singh of the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group said the scheme was not easy for small farmers to access.
Many lack the necessary land records or cannot afford the week-long wait for a payout under that system, he said.
That leaves them highly vulnerable to price fluctuations - as fifth generation farmer Lipson M K knows only too well.
"I don't know what my harvest will look like next year and at what price it will sell," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his home in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
"The weather is fluctuating, prices are fluctuating and so are our fortunes. We need support."
But some farmers in Kerala are faring better, thanks to a first-of-its-kind state government scheme offering MSP for 16 different vegetable crops.
Isaac Joseph, a 70-year-old plantain farmer, is a beneficiary of the scheme.
"Last harvest, the government announced an MSP of 30 rupees (40 cents) per kg for plantains, but in the market I could sell only for 17 rupees," he said.
"But under the MSP scheme, the government paid me the balance and I earned 30 rupees as promised."
Mini K is deputy manager with the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Keralam, an arm of the agriculture department that encourages farmers to register in order to get fairly paid.
She admitted the scheme was far from perfect - many farmers lack the digital expertise or connectivity to process claims, while traders can also manipulate the market by hoarding stocks and poor post-harvest handling of produce leads to losses.
But audits and hand holding would help, she said.
For Guddu Devi, a minimum price promise would at least provide a benchmark for negotiating at local markets.
"We invest a lot and never have any savings," said the 32-year-old farmer and mother of two.
"The cost for everything is going up and we are forced to take loans from the market. The trader pays us what he thinks is right but we always feel it is less, that we have been cheated. Anything that will break this vicious cycle will be welcome." ($1 = 74.9550 Indian rupees)
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(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Additional reporting by Roli Srivastava; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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