Explainer: Why Telangana's sorghum and turmeric farmers are protesting in Nizamabad

Hundreds of farmers have taken part in protests held throughout February in what’s considered an ongoing crisis for turmeric and sorghum cultivators in Nizamabad district.
Explainer: Why Telangana's sorghum and turmeric farmers are protesting in Nizamabad
Explainer: Why Telangana's sorghum and turmeric farmers are protesting in Nizamabad
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Farmers in Telangana’s Armoor mandal in Nizamabad district have been on the warpath since the first week of February with many, who mainly cultivate sorghum (a millet also known as red jowar) and turmeric, taking to the streets. Several hundred farmers from the mandals of Armoor, Balakonda, Nirmal and Jagtial have taken part in multiple protests that have been held, and many say that their ongoing crisis is sure to affect the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the state.

Farmers first began their strike on February 7 demanding a rise in Minimum Support Price (MSP), following which the state government officials promised to take up this issue. But after receiving no response from the government, the farmers began protesting again last month, staging rallies and ‘rasta rokos’ in Armoor.

The protest started with a ‘rasta roko’ on the Nizamabad-Karimnagar highway, NH-44, which progressed to the Hyderabad-Nirmal highway after police diverted traffic. Farmers protested along with their family members and the march turned into a ‘vanta varpu,’ where families engaged in community cooking on the highway. In response to the brewing protest, the police had even declared section 144 (unlawful assembly of more than four people) in 13 mandals of the district.

Exactly a year ago, the farmers staged a similar protest blocking the NH-44 and marching to the office of the Tahsildar, to demand the purchase of produce by the government. However, the protests made little difference to their daily lives.

What are their demands?

The farmers are demanding that the government set an MSP for turmeric. For sorghum, they are urging the government to purchase the crop produced in the state.

Nizamabad district has around 36,000 acres of turmeric crops and 50,0000 acres of sorghum. Turmeric is priced within a range of Rs 4,300 to Rs 5,500 per quintal. On average, a farmer growing turmeric invests around Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh per acre and gets around 20 quintals at the end of the season. Most farmers in the region grow both the crops on rotation. Farmers don’t see any profit and viability in growing turmeric anymore, but they don’t have other lucrative options either. The demand is now to declare a support price of Rs 15,000 per quintal to ensure any kind returns from the produce. For sorghum, the farmers are now demanding a price of Rs 3,500 per quintal.

The farmers are calling on government officials to discuss the crisis they are facing. After having received no response from officials for over two weeks now, the farmers marched to the District Collector’s office to submit a memorandum stating their demands on February 18. Accompanying them to meet the collector, M R M Rao, was Telangana Jana Samithi (TJS) chief professor Kodandaram.

Centre VS state

Most of the demand for sorghum, a fodder crop, comes from the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The demand from Delhi, the transportation charges, and the demand for other millets drives the price and demand for sorghum in the region. Last year, the ruling-Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government, for the first time ever, with the initiative taken by the local representatives, bought the sorghum crop at a price of Rs 2,300 per quintal. Widely believed to be an effort to garner votes in the lead up to the Legislative Assembly elections held in December, the move is not anticipated this year, as the government has not taken any decision regarding the purchase of sorghum yet.

Amid questions over the central government’s responsibility in declaring the MSP, the local TRS MLAs have been quick to pass the buck, claiming that things have gone out of hand.

Speaking on the issue, TRS spokesperson Rajaram Yadav said, “We have time and again come to the rescue of the Sorghum farmers. The TRS government when elected in 2014 disbursed nearly Rs 11 crore. Despite this, the farmers have failed to recognise the state government’s timely help.”

“The Centre has been giving assistance in the form of Market Intervention Scheme to the state governments to procure produce in the event of a fall in market prices, but the state government has failed to send a detailed report of the crops which need to purchased as per the scheme,” alleges BJP state spokesperson, Sunitha Reddy.

The central government has declared MSP for 23 crops across the country, and for the rest of the commercial crops, the state governments are responsible for setting the MSP. While the central government does allocate funds to the state under the Market Intervention Scheme, the only state where such a scheme has been implemented was in Madhya Pradesh under the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana.

“In such a situation where the crop isn’t grown statewide, usually the Market Intervention Scheme doesn’t apply but there is always scope for the central government to take it up as a special case and allocate funds or announce MSP,” says Kondal Reddy of Rythu Swarjya Vedika, an NGO working towards farmers issues in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Crackdown on farmer activists

In addition to imposing section 144 in the mandals, the police have been cracking down on farmer activists in anticipation of further protest. Since the beginning of February, protesters allege that the police have been detaining farmers and activists alike in the middle of the night. “Nearly 50 farmers took part in the rasta roko last week. The government doesn’t care about our needs now that the state elections are over. We still have eight farmers arrested under non-bailable sections,” says Pitte Gangaram, one of the farmers active in the protests.

“Farmer depending on sorghum in the hope that it will give good yield and a turnover when the MSP is right and turmeric is traditionally grown in this region, but now the market has proved to be deterrent to their efforts,” says Kodandaram, who has been actively demanding that farmers and activists detained in the Armoor division be released. Some lawyers have also come forward to work with the arrested farmers on a pro-bono basis.

Dissatisfied with the response from the Collector, some farmers have called for continued protests, while others are hopeful that the government will take heed of their demands soon.

Are the middlemen responsible?

The TRS argues that the issue is complicated and also points fingers at middlemen.

“The issue of sorghum farmers is not a simple one. The state government has been supporting the farmers even though most of the transactions for this crop including the purchase of seeds happens through middlemen and businessmen,” says Rajaram Yadav.

The TRS spokesperson pointed to a lack of demand for sorghum in north India. Last year, the state government incurred a loss of nearly Rs 50 crore after purchasing the sorghum crop from the farmers at a rate of Rs 2,300 per quintal, he says.

The farmers in the region say that they have been growing sorghum for nearly 35 years now and it has become an easy means of sustenance. The reason an increasing number of farmers turned to growing sorghum is because they hoped to fetch a high price from the middlemen.

“The middlemen have jacked up the prices over the years. A crop that once fetched a mere Rs 600 per quintal, began fetching at least Rs 5,000 per quintal. This ensured that the supply of the crop went up dramatically. At this point, the price drastically dropped to Rs 1,400 per quintal, which is the reason why we have taken to staging protests,” says Raja Reddy, one of the farmers from Armoor.

But the trend of cultivating the more lucrative sorghum also decreased the net cultivated area of turmeric, owing to the lack of proper returns from the crop. For instance, Raja Reddy once grew turmeric in four acres of his land. He now only grows it on one acre of land, and the the rest is used for sorghum. Most farmers, like Raja Reddy blame the middlemen for creating the false demand and hiking the prices.

Meanwhile, the stakes are high for the ruling party in Telangana as a large part of the area comes under the Lok Sabha constituency of Nizamabad, where K Kavitha, the daughter of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, is the incumbent MP.

However, the MP, who has always been vocal about the issues faced by the turmeric farmers, has maintained relative silence on the protests, only telling reporters recently, “The Chief Minister knows the plight of farmers and he will take positive decision at the appropriate time.”

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