SOLAN: Buoyed by the recent farmer agitations in various parts of the country, the small and marginal farmers in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh who are engaged in growing vegetables are organising themselves for a showdown with the state government very soon. These farmers are annoyed over the government’s ignoring their plight and showing no interest in resolving pressing issues that have pushed them to the brink of distress.

A major issue that Himachali society is facing is that, like in many other states, the younger generation is simply not interested in taking up farming as a vocation. In the absence of jobs in the government sector and total exploitation by the private sector in terms of poor wages and flouting of norms, their future appears very bleak.

The farmers say that over the last couple of decades they have laboured very hard to make Himachal the vegetable bowl of the country - without much assistance from the government. But with distress growing, they say it is time the government made the much needed interventions.

All India Kisan Sabha leader Kuldeep Singh Tanwar said, “With small patches of land amounting to a mere 78,000 hectares these farmers have been producing around 16.9 lakh metric tonnes of vegetables. In the present scenario of farm distress they can still sustain it with a proper mechanism in place, but the government has neither innovation, ideas nor interest in helping them.”

The farmers say that since they are able to produce two crops of multiple vegetables each year, they are able to survive even if the harvest fails or prices crash in the market. They are annoyed about the tall promises made by politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls had promised a minimum support price or MSP for vegetables, milk and flowers.

“Today when there is a Bharatiya Janata Party government is at both the centre and the state, there is no more talk about it,” said Tanwar while speaking at a two day farmers’ convention held last weekend at Ghatti village in Solan. Farmers from 14 blocks spread over five districts participated in the deliberations.

He pointed out that farmers face crashing prices for their produce at repeated intervals. This is true for tomatoes, which have earned Solan the title of the City of Red Gold, or garlic in Sirmaur, or potatoes in Kangra. Unable to get returns that would even match their input costs, the farmers claim to have ploughed their crop back into their fields in Kangra.

Apart from MSPs for their vegetable produce, the farmers want the government to set up food processing units where their procured produce can be processed into various value added products. They point out that despite its massive tomato production over several decades Solan has yet to get a processing unit where even a basic product like ketchup can be manufactured.

They also want storage facilities, so they can hold their produce for a few days till they get remunerative prices. At present they are compelled to sell their vegetables instantly, since they are perishable, and they are often cheated by commission agents in the mandis (produce markets).

“When the state can spend Rs 50 crore for solar fencing and another 25 crore just for publicising the governor’s zero-budget agriculture idea, why can’t it spend Rs 100 crore on developing cold storage facilities?” asked Tanwar.

Governor Acharya Devvrat has been harping about going in for ‘zero budget agriculture’ which is being questioned largely for its feasibility. Experts point out that it is not possible because there are input and labour costs involved even in organic farming.

Another demand of the farmers is chilling facilities for storing milk. Farmers say that at times they have to sell milk cheaper than water.

Then of course there are issues of marketing and being cheated by the commission agents at the mandis.

The farmers are also angry that the government has failed to check the menace of wild boar and monkeys that have been destroying agricultural produce. They feel let down by the present BJP and the former Congress governments which did not make use of a two-year period in which the centre had declared monkeys as vermin in the state and had allowed their culling.

“There has been no sincerity on the part of the government and the two-year window has lapsed. The governments were simply not interested as there were some investments also involved,” said another Kisan Sabha leader Satyavan Pundir.

Vishwanath Sharma, a farmer from Nahan, disclosed that “in our part the farmers did kill many monkeys by poisoning them, but the government approach was dismal. There was no awareness generated among farmers about the monkeys having been declared vermin, and no initiative to cull them.”

The farmers say that to make matters worse the Hindu right wing has been propagating monkeys as an avatar of Hanuman and instilling the fear of religion among the masses.

The farmers are agitated over the right wing campaign unleashed against the farm loan waiver to distressed farmers. They point out that farm loans are given through the states while industrial loans are given directly through banks - and while farmers are hounded for delays in repayment of loans, industrialists’ liabilities are conveniently declared as non-performing assets.

“If a small farmer who has taken a loan of Rs 5 lakh gets a return of only Rs 2 lakh despite a good produce, does he not need an intervention? We get seeds in packets that have no label, no date or identity of supplier. This is not a good scenario. We have lift irrigation schemes where the government is not interested in maintaining the machines, and it is left to the farmer to spend lakhs to lift water from rivers as is being done by many,” said Balak Ram Nirmohi, an octogenarian from a remote village in Shimla.

Questioning the government propaganda of doubling farm income by 2022, Sat Pal from Kangra underlined, “In the Changar area of Kangra people have stopped farming because there is no irrigation facility. The government is least bothered to check the menace of stray cattle and wild animals. It is least bothered to increase productivity.”

Hottan Saunkla of Kullu disclosed that farmers from five panchayats in Kharal valley recently campaigned for an irrigation facility. “We have given a three month ultimatum to the government to address our concerns, failing which there will be a massive agitation. Vegetable growers are not getting any subsidy on seeds, the subsidy on medicines is being curtailed and fertiliser costs are constantly going up. We need urgent interventions,” he said.

The all important question of farmers being compelled to work as daily wage earners in towns was raised by Pyare Lal Verma of Kandaghat block. “We have to get organised against the forces of divisiveness. No matter what our ideologies or political affiliations are, it is high time we came together to protect our interests as farmers,” he said.

The farmers scoff at the political class from the two main parties here, the Congress and the BJP, for not bothering to address their concerns. They are annoyed that the state assembly was more concerned about declaring cows as ‘rashtramata’ (nation-mother) instead of utilising the time and resources to address farm and developmental concerns. They pointed out that bovine politics is anyway not an issue in this hill state.

The farmers are determined to take their battle forward and an aggressive agitation is on the cards in the coming months, as the country gears up for Lok Sabha polls in the spring.