Over 2 lakh farmers in Maharashtra sit on piles of unsold cotton due to COVID-19 lockdown; stock worth Rs 5,500 crore yet to be procured

The last five days have been chaotic for farmers in the small town of Pathri in Maharashtra’s Parbhani district. Four hours, from 7 am to 11 am, see a deluge of farmers frantically lining up to sell their harvested cotton to the local traders.

Gajanan Ghumbare, a farmer with 10 acres of land where he grows cotton, says, “The procurement of cotton began last week for the first time since lockdown. 60 quintals of stock is lying in my farmland since the harvest in January. Farmers are panicking at the thought of being unable to sell their crop.”

Among the several constituencies of people struggling due to the lockdown enforced in India since 25 March to contain the spread of COVID-19, cotton farmers in Maharashtra are not left behind. Much of the harvest, which begins at the end of November and goes on for two months after that, remains unsold even by the end of April.

Govind Wairale, former general manager of The Maharashtra State Cotton Growers’ Marketing Federation Limited, a cooperative body involved in procurement of cotton, said about 25 percent of cotton in Maharashtra is just lying in farmlands, waiting to be sold, due to the lockdown.

“The expected production of cotton in Maharashtra was supposed to be 400 lakh quintals,” he said, “but about 100 lakh quintals are yet to be sold.” If one goes by a liberal estimate of 50 quintals per farmer, it means 2 lakh farmers and their families are still waiting for their returns. The minimum support price (MSP) of cotton is Rs 5,500. In other words, stock worth Rs 5,500 crore is yet to be procured from farmers.

The farmers stuck in this quagmire are mostly from Vidarbha, a huge cotton belt, and from districts like Parbhani, Aurangabad and Jalna in Marathwada. Being a labour intensive cash crop with an investment of Rs 25,000 per acre, the delay in procurement makes cotton farmers even more vulnerable.

Under normal circumstances, the procurement concludes by the end of April. The past few years indicate there is a rise in the price of cotton in the first week of April due to international fluctuations. Farmers keep a bit of their harvest handy to benefit from that boom. It leaves enough time for them to invest in preparations of their land, which begin in May.

However, coronavirus has rendered all of these calculations useless. “The cropping season begins mid-June,” said Ghumbare, “but we need money to buy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. We need to plough the land ahead of the sowing. If we do not sell our cotton as soon as possible, the entire upcoming season would go down the drain.”

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