Farmers in Punjab are losing interest in the cultivation of basmati because of unremunerative prices and low yields.

Thanks to the apathy of successive state governments and the Centre, farmers have been left with little option but to ditch what was once a money spinning crop. The much touted crop diversification has proved to a cruel joke on debt-ridden sons of the soil, many of them are killing themselves.

While prices have stagnated, the area under basmati has declined steadily over the years, especially after huge consignments to the EU and the Middle-East were rejected due to traces of fertilisers and herbicides in the grain. There were also charges that certain unscrupulous traders were mixing low-grade produce with the approved quality of grain.

All this made the market a very uncompetitive place, also the local consumption of basmati is small. Ballooning inventories complicated the situation further, and the end result was that prices crashed and the farmers who had dared to diversify burnt their fingers.

For a farmer, it is all about economics and putting food on the plate for his family. Opting for ‘parmal’ made sense since the farmer was assured that his crop would be lifted and he would be paid on time.
A quintal of parmal would sell for Rs 1,750 (post MSP) and the average yield is 28-30 quintal per acre. So a farmer would earn Rs 52,000 per acre if he grew this variety as compared to Rs 2,500-Rs 2,600 per quintal for basmati or Rs 44,000 per acre. The only catch being that the average yield of the latter is just 16-17 per quintal per acre. A losing proposition indeed!

For all the official talk, there is no fixed price for basmati and no agency procures it per se. It is the call of the commission agents and private players who call the shots, and it is the farmer who suffers.

APEDA data shows that the area under basmati shrunk by nearly 10 per cent in Haryana and nine per cent in Punjab. It is likely to go down this Kharif too.

Paddy is a water guzzler but basmati requires less water and is labour and input intensive. It is also susceptible to diseases and pests and needs pruning at regular intervals to prevent lodging. Unseasonal rains accompanied by high-velocity winds flatten the crop, with the result that harvesting it manually often becomes a necessity. Given the labour shortage faced in Punjab, the woes of the hapless farmers can be well imagined.

The availability of quality seeds, pesticides and other inputs are also areas of concern for such farmers. The crop also suffers as unscrupulous commission agents and dealers often offload poor quality products on the unsuspecting farmer. He not only has to pay for spurious inputs but also ends up with a failed crop or produce that he is forced to sell at a pittance.

Since basmati is sown late the window for the next crop is even smaller and he races against time to secure loans for his next crop to make up for past losses.

The last variety to come out of the stables of PAU was 1121, but that too failed to click with the farmers. So it's back to square one, ‘parmal’and procurement. So much for doubling the income of farmers by 2020!

A way out had been mooted by a high-level parliamentary committee headed by former Himachal Pradesh CM Shanta Kumar. He had suggested that infrastructure should be strengthened in states for which paddy is procured so that the existing one in the North could be used to grow other crops and cereals. This would not only save groundwater but also give a fillip to oilseeds and other farm produce.

The huge recurring cost incurred in procuring, storing and then transporting food grain could be used for other purposes like processing facilities.   

All this is hampered by fiscal allocations but as the political class promises the moon, the ground reality is that basmati leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the  farmer in the hinterland.

Source: July 16, 2018, The Tribune