How farmers in Mandya are faring in the aftermath of COVID-19 and lockdown

The authors spoke to 10 cultivators in Mandya – two vegetable farmers, two sericulturists, two paddy and four sugarcane farmers – to review the situation.
Representative image of a farmer at work
Representative image of a farmer at work

Just 100 km south-west of Bengaluru is Sakkare Nadu (land of sugar) – Mandya. With five rivers – Cauvery, Hemavathy, Lokapavani, Veera Vaishnavi and Shimsha – flowing through it, Mandya is known for progressive agriculture. Two large dams – Krishna Raja Sagara and Hemavathy – irrigate over a lakh hectares in the district. Lush green fields of paddy, sugarcane, mulberry and vegetables around the buzzing town of Mandya display a prosperous image.

Mandya’s agriculture attracts media attention for three reasons – its dispute with the neighbouring states on sharing Cauvery water, farmers’ agitation for release of payment against cane procured by factories, and farmer suicides. This year’s pandemic and lockdown posed a new crisis for the illustrious farmers of Mandya. We wanted to see how this played out amidst other challenges that we’ve been keenly following.  

To explore the new challenge, we chose 10 farmers from an existing database collated between 2016 and 2018. They were from Pandavapura, Malavalli and Maddur taluks, and had landholdings ranging from 1 to 4 acres. Farming in irrigated parts of Mandya is mostly for commerce and hence heavily dependent on input and output markets. Farmers often sell their produce to processing units too. Among the 10, two were vegetable farmers, two sericulturists, two paddy farmers and four sugarcane farmers.

Chandrike with cocoons adorn the front yards of houses
The vegetable farmers were cultivating tomato, beans, brinjal, cauliflower and leafy greens, using groundwater. Vegetables contributed to nearly 40% of their family income. They also grew rainfed ragi and pulses, just for their kitchen. Usually vegetables are sold in Mysuru or Bengaluru. Lockdown restrictions on transport during March and April forced them to sell their vegetables in Mandya market itself, for half the price they fetched last year. Since the month of May, transport restrictions were relaxed and access to market improved. But by then, borewells were yielding low and there were hardly any vegetables to transport.

Silk farmers found it tougher than vegetable farmers. Silk reeling and yarn making units stopped their operations for two to three months since March. The price of cocoon fell 60-70%, from Rs 480-500 to Rs 170-200 per kg. This fall in price was linked to export restrictions as well. Farmers couldn’t recover even the cost of silkworm eggs. Both the sericulturists mentioned that market officials blamed the poor quality of cocoon also for the low rate offered, pointing at damp weather. But the farmers were confident that cocoons were of the same quality as the lot they had sold during January-February, in the same market. Government apathy has fuelled angst in the silk clusters of the state. In the month of August, even though the festival and wedding season was fast approaching, demand for silk didn’t pick up much and cocoon prices saw only marginal recovery.

One of the sericulturists had outstanding loans of Rs 2,40,000 (taken at 1% interest per month) and a crop loan of Rs 1,50,000 (without interest). Both were taken a year ago from the cooperative bank, to revamp his drip irrigation unit. Though mulberry yielded well, the price crash was such that he was not in a position to repay the loans. With no other choice left to avoid starvation, he plans to continue silkworm rearing, borrowing money from relatives or money lenders. The hope is that prices will improve by the time the cocoons are ready and he will be able to repay at least part of the loan. Such situations are known to fuel distress among the farmers of Mandya.

Next come the two paddy farmers. Paddy (along with sugarcane) has been the trademark of Mandya since the advent of canal irrigation more than half a century ago. As water release from the reservoirs declined, the area under paddy has almost halved from 1.3 lakh hectares in the 1960s to 60,000 hectares in 2019. This year, lockdown restrictions impacted the transport of harvested paddy to the mills. Also, the price received by farmers was less than last year’s by about Rs 200-300 per quintal, despite a marginally higher minimum support price. Usually farmers wait a month or so to receive payment from the mills. This time it has already been three months since transporting the bags to the mill.

Though the worst days of lockdown were over by September, it will take longer for traders, rice mills and farmers to recover the loss incurred. Other issues of late announcement of support price, that too far lower than what farmers have been demanding, and paucity of canal water and labour continue year after year. They asked us sounding frustrated, “If we don’t harvest paddy, what would you have tomorrow for your breakfast, lunch and dinner?”

The issues with sugarcane cultivation are more complex compared to vegetables, sericulture and paddy. Heavily dependent on post-harvest processing, it is fast turning bitter for all players in the sugar value chain. An exasperated cane grower told us, “...leave it, you won’t understand the complexity. Sugar industry is much larger and dirtier than you and I can think.”

Alamane - local jaggery making unit
Two among the four cane growers we spoke to harvested cane once the first lockdown was relaxed in April. They sold it to a local jaggery unit (alamane). The buyer organised labour for the harvest and transport of the harvested cane. Price per ton of cane was close to what the local sugar factory would have offered and payment was given within two weeks of harvest.

The third sugarcane grower waited for the sugar factory to open. The factory was unable to start operations as expected since migrant labourers took time to return. Cane takes one year to be ready for harvest. Farmers usually spend this time doing some intercultural operations and managing irrigation. A long wait follows, for the sugar factory to harvest and procure the cane. It takes another six months for the factory to release the payment. Procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic was further delayed. Thanks to their children employed in Bengaluru, the family could tide over the extended delay. However, it is doubtful if the cane standing in the field for more than 20 months will be good enough to fetch him a reasonable price.

Alamane, local jaggery making unit, using crushed cane as fuel
The fourth sugarcane grower we talked to didn’t bother about the contract signed with a sugar mill and sold his crop to an agent from Tamil Nadu. Though the price was less, it was paid on the spot, in cash. Moreover, the transport as well as labour for harvesting and loading were arranged by the agent himself. This Mandya farmer has promised himself that never will he grow sugarcane again.

In summary, while vegetable farmers have been impacted by failed borewells for some years now, transport restrictions due to COVID-19 added to their loss for at least two months. For cocoon farmers, temporary shrinking of demand during the lockdown added to the long-term issue of price fluctuation driven by low import tariffs or export restrictions. For paddy farmers, the unusually long delay in receiving payment from mills added to their continued woes around support price, irrigation and labour. For farmers growing cane for sugar factories, the usual problems of water and electricity were supplemented by the lockdown driven paucity of migrant labour that delayed the harvest, impacting cane quality and further delaying payment from sugar mills. The adverse impact of the lockdown was bearable for those who relied on local labour, sold the produce locally without delay, and for families with some non-farm employment.

COVID-19 and the lockdown exacerbated the long persisting issues in agrarian Mandya. Water availability has already forced four out of the 10 respondents to scale down paddy, sugarcane and mulberry, and grow more millets and pulses. They rely on small local processing units for jaggery, millets, silk cocoons and oil extraction. With fewer employees, these units can follow mandatory precautions and reopen sooner than the big factories. Experience of family farmers in Mandya pointed to the need to support farming systems aligned with local agro-ecology and embedded in the regional economy that is connected to other more dispersed livelihood clusters – say confectionaries and silk weaving clusters driven by Mandya’s agricultural produce – along with suitable off/non-farm employment.

Seema Purushothaman is a Professor, and Sheetal Patil and Raghvendra S Vanjari are researchers at Azim Premji University.

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