Disappointed by both rulings, opposition camps in Maharashtra over agricultural issues’

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The onset of festivals brings promises of prosperity and hope to rural Maharashtra with every monsoon. But this year, heavy rains and flooding have taken their toll. The situation for farmers shows no signs of improving. Whether natural or man-made calamities, farmers struggle to survive. In such a scenario, Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana President Raju Shetti in a conversation with Shubhangi Khapre reflects on some of the critical issues related to agriculture and farmers.

Why did you start a campaign against plastic flowers?

Before festivals, our markets suddenly see a massive influx of plastic flowers. The majority of plastic flowers on the market are made in China. I am not against the product of a country. My concern is to safeguard the interests of our farmers. I recently met with Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav and called for a ban on the import of plastic flowers. Plastic flowers have had a negative impact on the demand for original flowers. As a result, the incomes of our farmers in Maharashtra and across the country have suffered.

Don’t you think flower growing is done on a small scale?

It may not have grown to the scale one would have liked or expected. But since the mid-1990s, farmers looking to diversify away from traditional crops have been willing to experiment with floriculture. Floriculture is catching up and has been performing well in several districts of Pune and Nashik region. Maharashtra flowers are exported to European countries. The domestic market was also flourishing. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for two years, the flower market and agriculture were hit hard. This not only affected livelihoods, but also put farmers in debt.

Is it because of the high investments in floriculture?

When you factor in flower cultivation, a farmer needs to invest Rs 10 lakh to 15 lakh per acre to construct a shade net. While green house requires Rs 70 lakh to 75 lakh per acre. These are just basic infrastructures. Apart from this, there are expenses for seeds, saplings, fertilizers, water and labor costs. Mainly cut roses, gerberas, marigolds, migrants, orchids, gladioli, shewanti and marigolds are grown in Maharashtra.

The monsoon session of the Maharashtra Assembly ended on August 25. Do you think it responded to the demands of the agricultural sector?

It was a very short session. I am disappointed with both the ruling BJP-Shinde Sena government and opposition parties like the Congress, NCP and Thackeray-led Shiv Sena. It seemed they were more interested in performing on the steps of the Vidhan Bhawan than working inside the state legislature and council. The parties failed to bring the agricultural crisis and the plight of farmers to center stage during the session. The ruling and opposition camps have failed.

Was agriculture mentioned?

Chief Minister Eknath Shinde made the moving plea in a written letter to farmers. Now, just expressing feelings is not a solution to their problems. Look at the magnitude of the kharif crop loss. Farmers are devastated. After the first sowing and the second sowing, all their crops were washed away. What panchnamas are you going to do? Instead, the government should have given Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 per hectare to help the farmers. What’s the point of unlocking funds later? If they had given financial assistance immediately, the farmers would have started planning for the rabi season.

Do you offer loan waiver?

Not at all, complete loan abandonment is not the solution. Relentless rains and floods have wreaked havoc in parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha region, where farmers growing soybeans and cotton have been most affected. Thus, extending support to small and marginal farmers should be the government’s priority. Also, the loans for soybeans and cotton are quite low compared to the cultivation of sugar cane. A blanket loan waiver does not work. This works to the benefit of large farmers. But generous financial aid was the need of the hour to keep the morale of small, marginal farmers alive.

Unless assessing the damage by panchnamas, how to declare a financial arrangement?

There are examples of farmers resorting to extreme measures such as suicides. What other proof do you need from the agricultural crisis? As I said, the incessant rains caused the fields to flood. Whole crops have been destroyed. Merely giving assurances and sympathizing with them will not improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, dairy farmers have suffered from falling milk prices. Has the situation improved?

Things are not going well but certainly better compared to before, as far as the dairy farming sector is concerned. But then there are fundamental issues related to milk tariffs that will need to be addressed by the Centre. I urge the Center to announce guaranteed prices as part of national dairy policy.

How will this help?

The Center has set a Fair Remuneration Price (FRP) for sugar cane. Thus, sugar mills cannot exploit sugarcane farmers by giving lower FRPs. They must maintain basic price levels. Similarly, if the Center announced milk prices annually, dairy companies would have to pay the minimum support price to dairy producers when they buy from them. In the absence of a milk pricing policy, private dairy companies exploit dairy farmers by paying lower prices. Maharashtra is the second largest milk producer in the country with a daily production of two crores per litre. Even though milk prices are higher in Maharashtra, in the absence of a central policy, private companies can source milk from neighboring states where prices are relatively lower to earn higher profits .

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