By Mohammad Shoeb
June 13, 2021
Low crop rate has inflicted financial stress on maize farmers in Bihar and Seemanchal. The pandemic, shutdown and rain make their plight worse. These farmers demand better crop prices and investment in food processing industries that will help boost prices of grains.
They urge state and federal authorities to ensure fair prices for their crops. Lack of infrastructure, organised market, minimum support price (MSP) and inadequate crop processing plants, and no subsidies compel farmers to sell their output immediately at low prices. These prices are arbitrarily set and often half or even less than the official prices prevailing in other states.
Although market price of corn in 2021 is relatively higher compared to last year, many small-scale farmers failed to make a profit. They did not recover even production costs. Below average rainfall during sowing season affected them. Steep rise in diesel prices increased their production costs. These mitigating factors have adversely impacted their income.
A farmer dries maize before transporting it to the market in Kishanganj, Bihar. (Photo: Mohammad Shoeb)
Bihar, particularly the north eastern area of Seemanchal, has emerged as one of the leading maize-growing states in India. Despite the increasingly growing net cultivation area of the cash crop, farmers’ financial condition has not improved. Many maize growers of the area have urged the central government to ensure fair prices.
The authorities have given no relief to the farmers. Federal and state government departments blame one another. The farmers’ hope hinges on the mercy of traders, private buyers and the easing of lockdown.
A significant majority of small and marginal farmers of the Seemanchal region, which comprises several districts of Northeastern Bihar, including Kishanganj, Araria, Purnea and Katihar, depend on agriculture, particularly maize cultivation. As part of the efforts to improve their income, more and more farmers, over the last decade, have switched to maize cultivation (which yields better output and income) from some traditional crops of the region such as paddy and wheat. However, in absence of infrastructure, organised market, and fair prices, their financial condition remains the same.
Local political leaders, including many MLAs and MPs have raised the issue of distressed farmers in the Bihar state assembly as well as in the Parliament for years, but all in vain.
In an interview, Member of Parliament from Bihar Dr Mohmmad Jawed told this correspondent, “I have raised these pressing issues of distressed farmers and lack of public investment in Parliament more than five times. Absence of public investment in related industries, MSMEs, and minimum support price are some of the key issues which need to be addressed. I have also asked several written questions to the Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Minister of Food Processing Industries, about the steps taken, and other details such as price and the quantity of maize purchased from Bihar. The minsters replied that ‘no such proposals have been made by the state government’, therefore not taken any initiative in this regard”.
Dr Jawed, a Congress MP, who is representing the Kishanganj constituency in Lok Sabha for the first time, says, “To address these critical issues of farmers, the state and central governments need to work in close co-operation and act swiftly, instead of playing the politics of blame game.
Government should reopen the old mandis (grain markets), and establish new ones keeping in view the growing demand.”
Jawed, a veteran former lawmaker in the Bihar assembly, says currently only a fraction of markets (of what existed more than two decades ago) operate. These are not sufficient to cater to the fast-growing size of the market.
“Maize growers of Bihar and Seemanchal do all the hard work, but they only get no profit. The real beneficiaries are those who do not grow even a single corn stalk,” says the Lower House MP, who is also a member of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Rural Development.
Highlighting the severity of the issue he says, “Last year, the official price for maize was around Rs.1,850 per quintal, but farmers from my area were compelled to sell at prices between Rs.600 and Rs.700 per quintal, which is not even half of that.”
Dr. Jawed, who is also a long-time social activist, educationist and environmentalist, opines the changing weather pattern aggravate farmers’ misery. “Due to unseasonal rain during the harvesting season, they face new challenges such as difficulty in harvesting, lack of space to dry the grain to reduce moisture post-harvesting, and many other problems.”
Farmers extract maize from stalks on the road in Mujabari village in Kishanganj, Bihar. (Photo: Mohammad Shoeb)
Bihar is emerging as one of the leading maize- producing states of India. Currently it is the third largest producer of maize in the country after Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh accounting for about 11 percent of national maize output, according to a research study titled: Status of Corn Cultivation in Bihar: Opportunities and Future Challenges, by S. B. Singh, R. K. Kasana and S. P. Singh from Chandra Shekhar Azad University of Agriculture & Technology, Kanpur (UP).
With support from government, or investment through public private partnership model, maize crop could alleviate the farmers’ poverty, boost their income and their standard of living. Some of the districts of Bihar’s Seemanchal area such as Katihar, Purnia, Kishanganj, and Araria have emerged as top maize growing districts of the state.
These areas have been classified as high productivity districts with an average yield of over six tonnes per hectare, according to available data (2016-17).
There are huge untapped opportunities to expand and grow. But these opportunities are not without challenges. Many farmers and other stakeholders suggest urgent long-term solutions to improve their financial conditions.
This correspondent spoke with some established maize growers and agricultural experts in the region. They highlighted several key issues and hurdles the farmers face. For example, the issue of “absentee farmers”. Nearly half of the maize growers in the Seemanchal region do not have their own land.
They take land plots at high rents from their owners. If they do not get fair prices for their crop and good return on investment, they often face grave losses. Such farmers are either forced to borrow money, or plead with their respective landowners for concessions. In both the cases, they often lose the land for the next crop. Many farmers did not cultivate the crop this year because of price volatility and absence of buyers in 2020 due to the pandemic.
A prominent maize and tea farmer from Kishanganj, Khusro Parvez, says, “Absentee farming is an important issue. If the land belongs to someone else, maize growers do not invest in developing basic infrastructure such as electrification of the farm and installation of electric motors for irrigation, levelling of the uneven land and better drainage system.
“They often use irrigation facilities provided by a third party at higher prices, or they rely on pump set generators that run on expensive diesel. Many farmers with limited cashflow compromise by not adequately watering their crop to reduce input cost. The inadequate or prolonged water cycle period saves them some money, but reduces the yield significantly.”
Lack of storage facilities is yet another issue. Maize is not a perishable crop which farmers can keep for long post-harvesting. The lack of affordable warehouses prevents farmers from holding their produce for longer period till they get better prices. Small and marginal farmers cannot keep their produce because they often need money to repay their liabilities and land rent.
The question arises, if there is no profitability then why do they grow maize?
Well, most small maize growers employ family members, including women and children. They do not impute their labour cost. If they pay them wages (nearly Rs 500 daily), or employ unrelated labourers the input cost increases, may be close to the market price of maize, or touching the breakeven point.
Some analysts suggest that, in the short-term, wages of labour in the area may come down. This may encourage new farmers to grow labour intensive crop. They say that in the past, in the absence of job opportunities in Bihar, especially in Seemanchal, millions of landless workers, migrated to other states to earn better wages.
Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs in their host states during the pandemic and the lockdowns in 2020. They walked hundreds of kilometres and returned home to their villages without job prospects. Their arrival adds new labour force and may put a downward pressure on the average wages. Experts say such a huge influx of people may create new socio-economic challenges.
Thousands of workers may never want to return to their previous jobs due to bitter experiences in urban areas during the lockdowns. The government needs to act and transform these challenges into opportunities by launching shovel-ready projects and create new job opportunities for them.
Local business leaders say the government should not be doing business. The government should create a conducive environment to attract private investment from within and outside the state. Government should offer incentives and remove bureaucratic hurdles.
“I have been running small businesses in Seemanchal area for more than three decades and have witnessed the fate of several government projects in this area that failed due to lack of efficiency,” says local businessman Mazhar Hasan.
“I am not aware of any government project in Kishanganj and neighbouring districts that is successful. For instance, we have had state-owned jute mills and tea processing units. After a few years either they became sick., and eventually, they were either privatised or locked. I believe only small and micro units are economically viable options.”
Bihar’s Minister of Industries Syed Shahnawaz Hussain.
Bihar’s Minister of Industries, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, when contacted for comment for this report, said: “We are already working to address the issues faced by farmers who are growing maize, sugarcane, and other grains. Bihar has become the first state in the country to implement a comprehensive ethanol promotion policy that would allow investors to directly make ethanol from maize, molasses, broken rice, and rotten grains. This will not only boost the income of farmers but also create job opportunities in the state.”
The minister says, “The ethanol policy, which has already been cleared by the cabinet and being implemented, is expected to be a game changer in terms of poverty alleviation and improving the standard of living. But due to the ongoing lockdown we are not able to accelerate the pace as we intended in this regard. However, once the lockdown restrictions are eased, I’ll be able to share more details about the latest achievements about the project.”
The former Union Minister and senior BJP leader from Bihar, opines years of mismanagement and industrial backwardness cannot be addressed overnight. “I am aware of the farmers’ problems. We are working to resolve them on priority basis,” he assures.