Rajasthan's millet farmers await the MSP dream
"When there is no procurement at the MSP, we produce millets only as much as we need for ourselves and our livestock. If the government buys it at the MSP, then we can produce it on more land. Not procuring millets at this price, even after fixing rates, shows the government's attitude towards farmers," laments Krishan Kumar, a farmer from Nohar in Rajasthan's Hanumangarh district.
The frustrations of farmers like Kumar over millet production are not unwarranted.
While the Central government had raised the minimum support price (MSP) for millets from Rs 2,250 to Rs 2,350 per quintal in the past year, the 'super food' has barely been the cause of any joy for the state's farmers. While the MSP for millets is announced every year, there has been no procurement of it in Rajasthan over the past decade.
Moreover, while the Central government, for 2022-23 fiscal, has estimated the production costs of millets at Rs 1,268, farmers believe that the assessment falls way short of reality.
"If procurement doesn't take place at the MSP even this year, farmers will be forced to sell their produce in the open market, where the rates range anywhere between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 per quintal. That means we get far less in return for our input costs," says Rampal Jat, the national president of the Kisan Mahapanchayat, adding that farmers will face a loss of Rs 700 to Rs 1,000 per quintal this year.
Ironically, these developments have been taking place while the Central government has been promoting millets at the highest level. After India presented its case, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared 2023 as the 'International Year Of Millets'. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had exalted the virtues of the superfood.
Farmers cultivate millets across the state but no proportion of the harvest is procured at the Minimum Selling Price. The last MSP procurement of millets took place in 2011-12 fiscal.
And in a state like Rajasthan, which offers ideal conditions for very few crops, millet is sometimes the only option.
"In Nagaur district alone, farmers cultivate millets over 60% to 70% of their land. In such dry conditions, we have to rely on monsoons for water, and millets do not need much water," says Bhanvar Singh Sangwan, the former sarpanch of Karwasaron Ki Dhani in Nagaur.
Farmers Jagdish Nayak and Bholaram from Nagaur district's Jhadeli stress that the government urgently needs to ensure that they get the right price for millets.
Amar Singh Jakhad, a farmer from Hanumangarh district's Pallu, believes the government must set up procurement centres for farmers to sell their millet produce. He adds that even though the MSP for the cereal crop is not that high, procurement at these rates would come as a big relief for farmers.
The Haryana route
Over the years, millet farmers from districts of Rajasthan bordering Haryana have sought to sell their produce in the neighbouring state. However, that path was closed after the Manohar Lal Khattar-led government in Haryana included millets under its Bhavantar Bharpayi Yojana. Under this scheme, the government pays the farmer the difference between the MSP and the price that the farmer gets for his produce in the market.
This puts the Rajasthan farmer out of the picture. For a farmer to get benefits under the Haryana government's scheme, online registration is a must. Millet farmers from Rajasthan are now unable to sell their produce in Haryana, as a result.
"While farmers from Haryana are assured that they will get the difference between the market price and the MSP, farmers in Rajasthan get neither the MSP for their produce nor any price difference," Kisan Panchayat president Rampal Jat tells 101Reporters.
A poor shelf life?
While listing down the various reasons for not procuring millets at the MSP, Rajasthan Cooperatives Minister Udaylal Anjana claims the shelf life of millets is very poor. Farmers, however, have ridiculed this claim.
Farmer Dhannaram from Jhadeli says, "We have been consuming millets for generations. The produce lasts for three years sometimes. Yes, one has to take proper precautions to ensure that the produce does not get spoilt."
Meanwhile, Bhanvar Singh Sangwan from Kadvasro ki Dhani tells 101Reporters, "Sometimes, even if you store millets for three years, its nutritional value does not diminish. Even during famines, one can rely on millets."
Protests bring no fruit, but the only way
Protests demanding the procurement of millets at the MSP have become a yearly occurrence. However, these demonstrations have never yielded concrete results.
Farmers protested in Jaipur last year but it did not yield any major returns on their demands.
Last year, following a call by the Kisan Panchayat, farmers protested in Jaipur and submitted a memorandum to Chief Secretary Niranjan Arya. Apart from some reassurances from him, nothing solid happened on the ground.
However, that has not deterred the farmers. Once monsoon picks up in July, they will begin to sow millets across Rajasthan. Around harvest time in Diwali, farmers are expected to raise their demands for the MSP again. Farm organisations have already started preparing for this.
A constant back and forth of accusations
Responding to a question in the Rajasthan state assembly last year, Cooperatives Minister Udaylal Anjana claimed that the purchase of millets could not be done due to a lack of approval from the Central government. However, Barmer MP and Minister of State (MoS) in the Union Agriculture Ministry Kailash Choudhary had responded to Anjana's claims, stating that the Rajasthan government had not sent a proposal to buy millets at the MSP.
Furthermore, in a 2021 letter to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Choudhary said, "While the Rajasthan government is not purchasing millets, the Central government is ready to distribute the grain under the Public Distribution System."
Choudhary also urged Chief Minister Gehlot to speed up the procurement of millets at the MSP so the Central government can distribute it under the PDS.
Rajasthan leads in millet production
Over 41 per cent of all millets produced in the country come from Rajasthan. Last year, the total area under millet cultivation in the state stood at 43.7 lakh hectares; 43.3 lakh tonnes of millets were harvested.
Farmers across the state cultivate millets, but no proportion of the harvest is procured at the MSP. The last MSP procurement of millets took place in 2011-12 fiscal. Interestingly, the market rates back then were higher than the support price. As a result, farmers were reluctant to sell their produce to the government. Consequently, no procurement of millets at the MSP took place that year. Thereafter, the state government has not purchased millets from farmers at the minimum support price even once.
Besides the allegedly poor shelf life of millets, the Rajasthan government has given several reasons for discontinuing this practice. It has also claimed there is less demand for millets in the state, also asserting issues relating to storage of the grain.
Stuck in a deadlock
As far as the Central government's stance is concerned, MoS Kailash Choudhary has maintained that the Centre is ready to approve the purchase of millets under the MSP - but with a rider: if the MSP procurement of millets is approved, Rajasthan would only get millets under the PDS, not wheat. This has become a thorn in the side of the Rajasthan government, which ultimately declined the deal.
On how millets would be procured at the MSP, Food and Civil Supplies Department Vice-Commissioner Ramswaroop tells 101Reporters: "The department has forwarded files regarding this MSP procurement to the government. A task force will then be formed to assess the requirement for millets. After this, a meeting of the task force will be held to decide on the procurement. But the final decision lies in the hands of the chief minister."
(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)