“We never used to go out or know about new things. Now that we know about ‘line siri [SRI technique]’ we are practicing that. The paddy production is much better now.”
“Now even if the men are away somewhere, we can go get fertilizer from the [Farmer Producer] company shop ourselves.”
These words spoken by women farmers in Lucknow district are emblemic of farmers I have met elsewhere in the country. The women are thirsty for more information and access. They toil away on family farms without acknowledgement of their labour and contribution. Worse, they are not included (and in some cases actively excluded) from knowledge networks which might help them make better decisions about crop choice, cultivation practices, and markets.
The women talked candidly of their experiences and concerns. The meeting was full of warmth, openness and enthusiasm, which I find to be invariably the case in meetings with women farmers across the country.
In this village, many farmers have come together to form a Farmer Producer Company (FPC). The company has set up an inputs shop for its shareholders (~20% of whom are women) in a village about 1.5 km away. Prior to the FPC shop, women had not been involved in the process of purchasing and picking up inputs from any shop; this was a role reserved for men (who have greater mobility). They explained that now they could get information through awareness camps conducted by the NGO which was supporting the FPC. Some women said that they find it very convenient to buy inputs from the shop and they were excited about learning new techniques like SRI (System of Rice Intensification).
The shareholders of this FPC are marginal farmers, with an average of 1.5 acres of landholding, growing paddy, wheat, mustard, potatoes and a few other crops.
Earlier in the day, my colleague and I had met the board of directors (all men; there was one female director, who was not available). The discussion was animated and covered a wide range of topics, not dissimilar from other such discussions I’ve had in northern India. They commented on how the fertilizer in the market is highly adulterated and the distributors charge over and above the official MRP, often 50% more than the IFFCO MRP. Not surprisingly, they explained how the creation of a Farmer Producer Company has been instrumental in getting access to good quality fertilizer at MRP when they need it.
The male farmers explained that when they had started the FPC, they had raised only a limited amount of equity capital. They needed additional funds to buy good quality fertilizer in bulk. No bank or other formal sector entity would give them a loan. After several attempts, the farmers took a loan from the Pradhan, who is also a member of the company. They also organized loans from many other sources, which enabled them do proceed with their activities.
They feel frustrated by agriculture policies on several fronts. For example, they say that the government has not notified FPCs as being on par with farmer cooperatives when it comes to distribution of fertilizer. As a result, during peak season when fertilizer becomes available, it is first sent to cooperatives and the FPC is unable to get sufficient quantity. They thought of buying during off-season but they don’t have enough working capital or storage capacity to store enough for all members.
The farmers grumbled about other interactions with bank officials: The officials don’t know what a producer company is. We had to tell them about FPCs. Even then they didn’t want to support us because they did not have a circular. The farmers claimed that one government circular stated that a particular scheme is available only to FPCs registered by SFAC. “They don’t even know that SFAC does not register companies and only ROC (Registrar of Companies) does. We tried to convince them but they demanded a revised circular.”
They gave more examples: The FPC, under the guidance of the NGO-promoter, tried getting a license to procure at MSP (minimum support price), to become an “MSP centre” as they called it.
The FPC got the license and decided to open the centre for procurement. After a few days of procurement they were informed that they must pay farmers for the procurement within 72 hours or face jail. But they were expecting FCI (Food Corporation of India) to pay them about a month later. The head of the procurement centre was in a bind and felt distressed, saying ‘ab ya to jail ya fansi‘ (I am facing jail or suicide by hanging). Somehow or the other, with the help of other producer companies and the promoters, well-wishers, etc, they managed to come up with the funds. Not surprisingly, they decided to terminate all MSP procurement activities immediately.
The Chair of the FPC board lamented: “How are marginal farmers supposed to come up with enough money to pay for all their entire produce within 72 hours? We should be given advance like govt MSP centres are.”
Perhaps a practical approach might be to allow FPCs to pay after receiving funds from FCI. It is odd that these rules are being enforced without understanding the nature, capabilities and purpose of FPCs.
The farmers cited yet another example: They have recently received a circular requiring them to upload the geographical coordinates of their FPC office (geo-tagging of latitude and longitude) and a photo of their office on the website of the Registrar of Companies. The farmers are relying on the NGO-promoter for compliance, despite the fact that the NGO’s project funding (and formal support activities) ended a few months ago. They also pointed out that the forms and the website are in English for which too they need the NGO’s support. The chair of the FPC board said “Unhi ka sahaara lenge (we will continue to rely on them)”; the NGO team member added quickly “jab tak yahaan hain” (until we are here). I got the feeling that the farmers were referring to not only the NGO but the individual team members sitting among us, with whom they had built a trusting relationship.
In the course of my work, I have held similar discussions with farmers from different parts of the country. Once we get over the initial hesitation, the discussions become open and candid. This meeting was no different. But it was unique in that most of the farmers’ laments were directed at policies which appear to be pro-farmers on the surface but are impractical, such as MSP procurement centre rules or expecting barely-literate marginal farmers to geo-tag their offices.
This particular group of farmers seemed to be well-informed and highly-engaged, and their FPC was quite active. Yet they were unsure how they would manage after the exit of the NGO-promoter.
Update: The promoter of this FPC adds, “Today, ROC compliances for TATA or Reliance and a producer company situated at remote rural location is same. Recently ROC asked to update KYC of all BODs [Board of Directors] of companies, otherwise a heavy penalty was imposed. Doing KYC of BODs means [that] each BOD had to upload his video and also whole process was linked with BOD mobile number. BOD received an OTP which he has to send to CA for uploading KYC documents. In this process many BODs [who didn’t] have smart phone or not able to handle whole process got stuck and the result was ‘heavy penalty on FPC’. We are promoting these FPCs at remote locations to help small and marginal farmers, and we know about status of our country infrastructure and status of digitization.”