On the morning of June 17, there was an uproar outside the office of Thaneswar Malakar, the deputy commissioner of Assam’s Barpeta district. Some 50-odd rice farmers, under the banner of the farmers’ organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, shouted slogans and demanded to meet Malakar.

The farmers were agitated because their summer harvest had yielded large amounts of seedless blighted rice – the paddy stalks had husks, but no grain inside. The farmers claimed that the poor-quality harvest was a result of spurious seeds. The farmers said that the seed sellers should be arrested and the farmers compensated.

Saturday’s protest was not the first that Barpeta has witnessed in the last few weeks. In fact, it was hardly a patch on the one held in the first week of June, where locals claimed, almost 1,000 farmers had turned up.

“This year, the rice crop across the district has been damaged,” explained Hussain Mohammad Shah Jahan of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. “People invested significant amounts on high-yielding variety of seeds, and lost all of it.” He said almost the entire batch had stalks with empty husks.

A protest by paddy farmers in Barpeta, Assam. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Sona Miyan, an affected rice farmer, said that he had lost more than Rs 50,000 in this crop. “I took two bighas [approximately a quarter of a hectare] on lease for Rs 10,000 to cultivate paddy,” he said. “Add to that an investment of Rs 22,000 per bigha. But my entire batch was spoilt. I don’t know what to do now.”

Barpeta is replete with such stories. Noor Salam, a sexagenarian farmer, recounted a similar story. “I had borrowed money to buy seeds and cultivate my land,” he said. “Now all of it is gone.”

Another farmer, Mangal Khan, said the yield in his field was less than half of what he got during previous harvests. “At least I got something,” he said half-jokingly.

The summer harvest had yielded large amounts of seedless blighted rice in Barpeta. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Blame game

However government officials said that the farmers only had themselves to blame for the quality of their summer harvest. “After we received a complaint of mass chaffing, we set up a committee to investigate,” said Pankaj Nabh Das, senior agriculture development officer in Assam’s directorate of agriculture. “The committee’s findings revealed that the farmers had bought a variety of hybrid seeds not recommended by us. Also, hybrid farming requires everything to be specific – the amount of fertilisers, its timing, etc. Did they follow all proper instructions?”

Das claimed that areas where the state agriculture department distributed seeds and organised demonstrations saw a bumper harvest, even in Barpeta.

But Barpeta’s farmers insist that they have used the same variety of seeds in previous years too – and the government had never told them to do otherwise.

“The government has never told us what seeds to use,” said Khan. “If we were to keep waiting for the government to give us seeds or tell us what to do, our field would be already knee-deep in flood water.”

Farmer Noor Salam. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Das contended that it was not possible for the agriculture department to distribute seeds and organise demonstrations everywhere. “Our job is to motivate,” he said. “We organise demonstrations in certain areas, farmers from nearby areas get motivated and follow techniques we endorse. Assam has 27 lakh farmer families – how can we possibly go everywhere?”

‘No institutional support’

However, complaints that institutional help from the state government to farmers was inadequate go beyond just this instance. Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, who is the president of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, accused the state of being absent when the farmer needed it the most.

“Farmers are encouraged to buy hybrid seeds and tractors,” he said. “But there is no one to educate them on how to use them.” As a result, Gogoi contended, the cost of production for farmers in Assam was increasingly becoming higher than the prices their produce brought in the market.

Even people within the government concede that the system is broken at various places. For instance, the mechanism of minimum support price – a market intervention by the state to insulate farmers against a sudden decline in the prices of their crops – exists almost entirely on paper in Assam. Few farmers even know about its existence. The Union government sets the minimum support price at the start of the sowing season. When market prices fall below this price, procurement agencies supported by the state government are supposed to buy the crop from farmers at the minimum support price to prevent farmer distress.

However, Assam’s procurement agency – the Assam Agriculture Marketing Board – does not have adequate funds for this. This has severely limited its procurement power, said a senior official of the board. “The state government gave us a revolving fund of Rs 14 crore in 2012-’13,” said the officer who did not want to be identified. “But nothing after that. Every year, the MSP [minimum support price] goes up, and naturally our purchasing power decreases.”

The official claimed that last year the board sought to take a loan from the National Bank For Agriculture And Rural Development to make up for the shortfall, but the state government refused to stand as the guarantor. He added: “We just can’t meet our targets at this rate. Our target paddy procurement for this year is 40,000 metric tonnes, but it is unlikely if we can buy more than 30,000 metric tonnes.”

Assam’s paddy production in 2014-’15 was estimated by the Union Agriculture Ministry to be 48.63 lakh tonnes, accounting for approximately 5% of the country’s total rice production. The state clocked an average growth of 2.8% in its rice production since 2010, lower than the national average of 4.4%. In the same period, most of the other bigger eastern states, save West Bengal, fared much better. While Odisha and Bihar clocked a growth of 20.23% and 18.53% respectively, rice production in Jharkhand went up by over 40%.

The agriculture directorate’s Das said that the idea of the minimum support price has not taken off in the state because most farmers here did not grow rice as a cash crop. “In Assam land holdings are small, and people cultivate almost entirely for their consumption,” he said. “So, whatever little is left they don’t really care to take it to the procurement centre, which is often at a distance from farms.”

According to the Assam Human Development Report of 2014, almost 85% of the state’s farmers own less than a hectare of land.

No MSP for vegetables

On the other hand, vegetables, which are grown as a commercial crop in various parts of Assam, particularly in Barpeta district, are not part of the minimum support price scheme. This led to distress among potato farmers this season after potato prices plummeted to Rs 2 to Rs 3 per kg in the state.

Nakul Pal, a potato farmer from the district, blamed overproduction in West Bengal for the price crash. “We had a good crop last year, so this time I even took land on lease,” said Pal. “I lost about Rs 5 lakh. I had to dump most of my produce.” Pal added that preserving his produce in a cold storage unit was not an option because of the high cost of transportation and electricity.

However, Pal’s biggest grievance against the state is not high electricity tariffs or the fact that the government does not offer a minimum support price guarantee for potatoes. His concern is the lack of proper irrigation facilities. This is a common complaint among the state’s farmers, and the numbers bear it out: Assam’s irrigated area is less than 10% of the total cultivated area in the state, which is considerably lower than the national average of 34%. Only one-seventh of Assam’s individual land holdings have access to irrigation facilities.

Several potato farmers dumped their crop in Barpeta after its market price plummeted. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Das said the state government planned to amend this soon. “We will provide one lakh shallow tube wells at subsided rates,” he said. “The beneficiaries are being currently identified.”

Unlike other parts of the country like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, there are hardly any demands for farm loan waivers in Assam. However, experts point out that this does not necessarily imply that the agricultural sector in Assam is in a better state than that in the rest of the country. It simply means that banks do not lend to farmers in the state, which has one of the lowest credit-deposit ratios in India. This ratio is a measure of how much a bank lends out of its total deposits. A low ratio suggests that banks may not be making full use of their resources.

Das said that the government was aware of the problem but it could not do much to rectify it. “We can only request banks [to give loans], not force them,” he said.

Land records issues

Joydeep Baruah, an economist with the Guwahati-based Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, said a major reason behind the lack of farmers’ access to institutional credit was the “peculiar history of land settlement in the state”. According to Baruah, “institutional land issues” was one of the most important factors plaguing small farmers in Assam. “There is no revenue settlement in large areas of the state, particularly in the char areas,” he said.

Chars are densely-populated sand bars in the middle of the Brahmaputra river. They are largely inhabited by Bengali Muslims, who are often accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many of these chars, and other parts of lower Assam, have never seen any cadastral survey – which establishes and re-establishes real property boundaries. This means that people living here have no formal ownership of land.

Baruah suggested that there was no real push toward establishing revenue settlements in these areas because they were largely occupied by a “particular community”, referring to Muslims. “In the absence of land ownership, institutional credit is obviously difficult to access,” he said.

Das of the agriculture department conceded that the lack of revenue settlements was a problem. “I won’t be able to comment why it is not happening,” he said. “It is a political issue.”

This report is part of a series on why farmers are protesting across India. Read the other reports in the series:

A collapse in the prices of soyabean led to violent protests by farmers in Madhya Pradesh.

Behind the farmer unrest in Haryana there is a history of instability in crop prices.