Chandigarh, June 1: The White Fly is back. Here is another disaster looming over cotton farmers in Punjab. The state government has so far failed to come up with counter measures. The Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, faculty members had this information about two weeks back. Some of the farmers had ploughed their cotton fields by that time and that was the beginning. White Fly attack during the last two cotton seasons has spelled doom and this third consecutive attack would mean total disaster. It is the cotton area that is witnessing maximum number of suicides by farmers and farm workers and for the state government, these casualties seem to have become a routine. The deepening crisis is of little concern even in the pages of newspapers, forget the TV media concerned more with non-issues and trivialities.
Already, the area under cotton in Punjab is down from 3.39 lakh hectares last year to 2.67 lakh hectares this year. The attack is presently confined to few pockets but the multiplication rate is high and the pest is immune to pesticides in the market.
Agriculture Minister Tota Singh has been in the eye of the storm since the last cotton season as the Rs 33 crore pesticides purchase scam hit the headlines. Political parties have been demanding his sack. This was one of the main demands made by the Aam Aadmi Party in a recent memorandum submitted to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. The axe fell on agriculture director Mangal Singh Sandhu. The state government constituted special investigation team. Ironically, the probe has virtually remained non-starter, such has been the ‘seriousness’ of the Badal government. But then this now is the election year.
The SIT registered 23 cases against about 50 people but these were mostly small traders. The agriculture department is still to submit record of Rs 33 cr pesticide purchase to the SIT despite several reminders. The setting up of the SIT in Punjab means putting the matter in cold storage. Perhaps no SIT constituted during the last two years has taken the investigation to the logical conclusion.
For the last three decades since the Johl committee submitted its report on diversification away from the disastrous wheat-paddy cycle, the issue has been under discussion at various levels. However, in case of cotton, the farmers are forced to revert to paddy or face disaster. Similar has been the fate of sugar cane and potatoes. Several sugar mills in the cooperative sector have closed down. Higher potato production leads to crash in prices meaning sharp cut in profit margins.
The Badal government ruling the state for the last more than nine year finds it convenient to pass the buck to the government at the centre without owning any responsibility. It was way back in 2000 that the state government had come up with Rs 100 cr plan under the title ‘second push to agriculture’ but that never took off and subsequently forgotten. The aircraft that was to take fresh vegetables to London every day from Amritsar airport as promised by Badal never took off, just like his government.
Farmers in Punjab have experimented with sunflowers and even grapes to diversify but it is the government support that has always been lacking.
Rather than passing on the buck to the centre, the Punjab government could have come up with its own comprehensive farm policy and then approach the centre for back up support. The ideas that are thrown up even by some so-called experts are stereotypes. The farmers need market oriented farm policy. Assure then market support and then see the results.
However, the policies of the Badal governments have mainly been tailored to garner votes rather than tackling the problem itself. The government seems to have turned indifferent even to continuing suicides.
The situation is on the farm front is posing a serious challenge to the entire population in Punjab with the soil turning toxic due to excessive used to pesticides and fertilizers. These inputs were promoted to get more yields but it is the farmer who has become the victim. Even mother’s milk has become polluted, so serious is the crisis. It would take years to detoxify the soil even if the campaign is initiated today.
It is this issue that would have to be given priority whichever party comes into power in the state in February 2017 elections. The farmers can talk of only better pricing and marketing. These would be half measures. What is needed is a comprehensive long term policy.