When politics spills over to agri sector: Pulses, oilseed growers lose out to cane farmers in Maharashtra

Parthasarathi Biswas
Issues pertaining to pulses and oilseeds growers have failed to feature either in the campaign of the ruling party or the opposition. (Express file photo)

Of the 70 lakh hectares (lh) of cultivated area in Marathwada, sugarcane is grown over only 2 lh. In contrast, pulses and oilseeds have a bigger share, with farmers growing them over 11.37 lh and 13.11 lh respectively. The sugar sector in the state, however, has been the launchpad for a large number of senior leaders across political parties.

Issues pertaining to pulses and oilseeds growers have failed to feature either in the campaign of the ruling party or the opposition.

Growth of pulses and oilseed cultivation in Marathwada Hukumchand Kalantari, president of the Latur Daal Mills Association, traces the growth of the daal industry in the region to the early 1980s. The first daal mill in Latur was started in 1960s but the real push came in the 1980s, in line with a change in the cropping pattern in the region. Due to failing rainfall, farmers shifted from cotton towards leguminous crops like moong, urad, tur and chana. “When the daal mills started, we required raw material round the year to keep our operations running. This resulted in better realisation for farmers who started going for pulses, mostly tur and chana,” he said.

Soyabean, which covers around 5.34 lh of area in the region, is being cultivated more recently, said Ashok Bhutada of the Kirti Group. “Sunflower was the major oilseed in the region but non-remunerative prices made farmers look for other alternatives and soyabean fitted the bill,” he said. Processors and solvent extractors realised the full potential of soyabean, which produces only 18-20 per cent oil compared to the 40-45 per cent of groundnut. The real earner for processors was the protein-rich solid mass left after the oil was extracted.

Termed as deoiled cake or meal, this is an exportable commodity, with India exporting to various destinations. Of the 73.50 lakh tonne (lt) of meal produced last year, nearly 21 lt was exported. Currently, the region has around 200 dal mills and 30 solvent extraction plants. Industry sources peg the turnover of the daal industry at around Rs 6,500 crore, while the oil industry reports a much higher turnover of more than Rs 15,000 crore. Daal mills process around 1.5 lakh tonnes of pulses, mainly tur, while around 35 lakh tonnes of soyabean is crushed annually in the region.

Sugar cooperatives: Launchpad for political leaders

Compared to oilseeds and pulses, the sugar industry in Marathwada handles lesser volume. The average amount of cane crushed in the region is 150 lt while the sugar production figure is 15-20 lt. Majority of the 47 mills operational in the area are privately owned.

Despite its fairly lower share, it is the sugar sector which has consistently been the launchpad of senior state leaders. Be it former chief ministers such as late Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan, or BJP leaders like the family of late Gopinath Munde, or present Union minister Raosaheb Danve, all of them control multiple private or cooperative sugar mills. In Marathwada, majority of the private mills are owned by leaders of the BJP and Shiv Sena, who had purchased the defunct cooperative mills to start their own operations.

Political commentator Chandrakant Bhujbal points to the intrinsic nature of cooperative bodies, which allow the development of leadership through a secure vote bank. Farmers who sell cane to the mills are dependant on it for their payment. “The distance they can travel to sell cane is limited, which is not the case with soyabean or pulses,” he said.

This and other benefits offered by the cooperative bodies — they also generate employment for local residents — have allowed the sugar industry be encourage the growth of political leadership. “The other industries have been developed by private players and are strictly for business purposes. They keep politics away from their units,” said Bhujbal.

Issues affecting pulses and oilseeds growers missing from campaign trail

Because of the clear demarcation between politics and business, issues that affect growers of pulses and oilseeds barely find place in the political discourse. Given the price-sensitive nature of the commodities, consumer-side intervention takes priority at the level of policymakers. In 2015, due to a scarcity, prices of tur dal had crossed Rs 200 per kg at the retail end. The government introduced a series of measures, like imposing stock limits to allow for cheap imports to cool down the prices.