Four consecutive years of drought, coupled with the lack of clear government policies to protect farmers from price fluctuations of food produce, and the Union government’s impractical food-related export and import policy, has jeopardised the livelihoods of farmers in Karnataka, especially those carrying out dry farming and cultivating foodgrains.

The farmers are upset that despite foodgrain production in the state hitting a new low due to scanty rains, they are struggling to get a remunerative price for their already diminished yield.

Usually, the Union and state government’s logic in working out prices of farm produce is to ensure that good prices are made available to the farmer when production is low. But this season in Karnataka, farmers claim that this is not the case.

“The saying that Indian farmers’ life is a gamble with monsoons is 100% true in our case,” said Mahanta Gowda, a tur grower from Afzalpur taluk in Kalaburgi district in North Karnataka.

Tur prices plummet

According to Gowda, the yield of tur (also known as arhar or pigeon pea) in the past two years was almost nil due to drought, and prices skyrocketed, reaching a high of Rs 14,000 a quintal. This was the time tur hit a retail price of Rs 200 a kg.

The production of tur has since increased ­– it is just above estimated lines this year due to an increased area coming under tur cultivation – but its market price has nosedived disproportionately. A quintal of tur now fetches only between Rs 3,700 and Rs 4,000 a quintal. This is less than the amount it brought farmers when yields were normal three years ago.

Shivayogi Muddani, a tur grower from Sedam taluk, is unable to comprehend how prices of tur have plummeted even though there is no glut in tur production.

“I cannot understand the logic behind the market prices of tur,” said Muddani. “One can agree with skyrocketing prices when there are no yields, but how will prices nosedive when there are only meagre yields.”

Muddani predicted that tur prices would hover around Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000 a quintal under the present circumstances, keeping in view increased tur production in other states.

Another farmer, Srinivas Reddy from Gadag district, who grows tur, onion and maize, said three years ago, tur fetched between Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,000 a quintal when yields were normal.

“How have prices come down [now],” asked Reddy.

Karnataka’s tomato and onion farmers are worse off. An economics professor from Karnataka University in Dharwad attributed their distress to demonetisation, which was announced on November 8.

“All perishable commodities such as onion, tomato and potato, which are high yielding, had no buyers when farmers started marketing their produce with traders who had no money to pay the farmers,” he said, pointing to the distress sale of onions and tomatoes for prices as low as Re 1 to Rs 3 a kg.

Many farmers in Karnataka threw their produce on the roads in the last week of December 2016 and the first week of January 2017, expressing their ire against the Siddaramaiah government that failed to buy their produce at a reasonable price, said the economist who wished to remain unidentified.

He added that the only way to save farmers from ruin in such situations was through extensive market intervention by the state government.

Drop in output

Data from the Agriculture Department shows that Karnataka is heading for a significant drop in agricultural output, particularly foodgrain production, in 2016-’17 as a result of severe drought.

This is expected to have a huge impact on the growth of agriculture and allied sectors and food self-sufficiency. The drop in production is attributed to the decline in the total coverage area and drought in major parts of the state, and to some extent, the cash shortage triggered by demonetisation during the rabi, or winter cropping, season.

While the South West monsoon (June-September) was deficient by 18%, the following North East monsoon (October-December) made things worse, with a shortfall of 71%.

A senior official in the state’s Agriculture Department said that food production shortfall in the state may cross 40% this year.

“Karnataka had a drop of 25%-30% in food production during the kharif [monsoon cropping] season and this is anticipated to reach 40%-45% cumulatively in the rabi season,” said state Agriculture Minister Krishna Byregowda.

Estimates by the Agriculture Department show that foodgrain production in Karnataka in 2016-’17 was expected to be 134.75 lakh tonnes. But actual production is about 86.33 lakh tonnes – a shortfall of 36%.

Some crops such as ragi (finger millet), a staple food in districts of South Karnataka and maize, a major commercial crop in central Karnataka, has seen a drop of 58% and 34% respectively in production.

Sorghum or jowar production is close to a new low with the state producing only 5.58 lakh tonnes against an estimated 15 lakh tonnes. Sorghum is the staple food of people in many districts of North Karnataka. Production of Bengal gram (chana dal) too has fallen, with only 3.19 lakh tonnes against an estimated 6.76 lakh tonnes.

Barring tur, which has seen a slight increase in production, with a yield of 6.1 lakh tonnes against estimated production of 5.53 lakh tonnes, and green gram (mung), which is at 1.28 lakh tonnes against an estimated 1.19 lakh tonnes, all other crops have registered a drop in production.

Even production of oil seeds such as groundnut, soyabean and sunflower has dipped by 58%, 15% and 72% respectively.

The severe drought gripping parts of Karnataka is expected to slow down growth of agriculture and allied services sector by 2%-3%.

Poor policy implementation?

Chairman of Karnataka Agriculture Prices Commission TN Prakash Kammaradi blamed the state government for its failure to tackle the fall in the prices of various agricultural commodities, as well as for not prevailing upon the Centre to stop the import of certain foodgrains and food produce.

“The Centre, along with banning imports, should have allowed the export of tur, oil seeds and millets, which would have automatically checked the decline in the prices of these commodities,” said Kammaradi. “I am not saying that consumers should be burdened, but the farmers should get remunerative prices for their hard labour.”

He pointed out that tur, which was sold at Rs 200 per kg in retail markets last year, has dropped to Rs 70 per kg this year.

“Consumers who had bought tur dal for Rs 200 will be happy to buy it at Rs 100 or 110 a kg,” he said. “In turn, farmers would have benefitted, with their produce fetching between Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,000 a quintal.”

Karnataka’s Agriculture Department, which has a revolving fund for market intervention, announced that it will buy onions at Rs 2,000 a quintal and tur between Rs 5,050 (the minimum support price fixed by central government), and Rs 5,500 (which includes an additional Rs 450 as state subsidy).

State marketing yards are now unable to cope with the rush and most farmers have criticised the Karnataka government for inadequate arrangements to buy their produce.

The state government has fixed a quota for buying each farmer’s crop. However, farmers allege that officials are buying from traders and rich farmers, and neglecting small and marginal farmers.

Farmers demand that the state government should open more buying centres and revoke the purchase quota for each farmer.

“The government should buy the total yields of a farmer instead of fixing a quota for each,” said Abhishek Reddy, a tur grower from Sedam taluk in Kalaburgi district.

He said that the process of selling produce to state centres was a tedious one, with various restrictions and conditions on the quality and quantity of the produce.

Kammaradi said that demonetisation had also hit the state’s farmers hard.

“When a farmer has no money to return to his village after stocking the produce with the trader, where is the question of him accepting cheques?” he asked. “Many are even unaware of government schemes that enable them to get interest-free money of Rs 2 lakh on their produce if they are stored in registered godowns and government-owned storage.”

State, Centre unmoved?

Dal Mill Owners’ Association chief Shivasharnappa Niggudgi alleged that the state government was not serious in protecting interests of farmers by not intervening to prevent price fluctuations.

“When the country itself is not surplus in food production, how is there a fall in the prices of food commodities?” he asked, claiming that the government was making traders the villains.

He said that the government should plan its marketing policy on the basis of yields of a particular crop. For instance, if the tur yield is more, it should not only buy the entire produce from farmers, but also prevail upon the Centre to halt tur imports. This, he said, will automatically prevent the exploitation of farmers by traders.

Kurbur Shantkumar, chairman of Karnataka State Sugarcane Growers’ Association, warned that the shortfall in food production would have serious repercussions on the farming economy.

“The government should come out with a relief package to save farmers, or else the growing trend of farmer suicides in the state will continue in 2017 as well,” he said.

“Where is the recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission that farmers should be provided the cost of cultivation and 50% extra above?” he asked. “This has gone missing when farmers are in distress or forced to sell their produce at low prices.”

Shantkumar also suggested that the state government address problems on the ground instead of engaging in a blame game with the Centre over demonetisation.