Corn farmers in Bihar caught in a maze of high input cost, low returns

Corn farmers in Bihar caught in a maze of high input cost, low returns

Corn farmers in Bihar caught in a maze of high input cost, low returns

Erratic weather, increased use of fertilisers, poor purchase mechanism and crop destruction by animals make maize hub Kosi-Seemanchal rethink its crop choice.

Katihar, Bihar: The Kosi-Seemanchal region of Bihar is increasingly seeing a shift away from corn cultivation. Once a favourite of farmers, maize production has dropped steadily due to high input cost, climate change and low profit margin.

“Maize has good commercial value in the form of popcorn, sweetcorn, cornflakes and chips. Many think we are making a quick buck out of it. However, the reality is only corn from Andhra Pradesh becomes value-added products. Our crop ends up as cattle fodder and bird feed,” explains Girindra Nath Jha, a journalist-turned-farmer.  

But why does corn from Bihar fail to qualify? According to Grain Merchants’ Association president Pappu Yadav, exporters are looking for high quality grain, not high quantity of grain. “It is very simple. If they do not get the required quality, they will source the grain from other regions.” 

The result: farmers do not get a decent price, and hence ditch corn to grow wheat and paddy. Until July 8, maize was sown in only 31.84 lakh hectares in the state as against 41.63 lakh hectares during the same period last year. This means a drop of 23.53%.

Located in the northeastern part of Bihar, Kosi-Seemanchal comprises seven districts — Araria, Madhepura, Saharsa, Supaul, Purnia, Kishanganj and Katihar. The Gulab Bagh Mandi in Purnia is considered to be the largest maize trading centre internationally. India’s maize exports to neighbouring countries, including nearby Nepal, mostly happen through this mandi.


The Bihar mandi system fails to support an adequate minimum support price for the procured maize (Photo: Rahul Kumar Gaurav)

“Around 35 bighas of land in our panchayat had maize cultivation in 2005. Now, not even four bighas have the crop in it,” says Pankaj Jha of Ekma panchayat in Supaul district. Corn farmers are forced to keep vigil 24x7, as theft is a big issue, especially at night. “Same is the case with mango cultivation.”

Another reason that works against corn is its input cost. “There will be a remarkable increase in yield if more manure and fertiliser are used. That also means high input costs,” Pankaj says. As such, investing in a costly crop during uncertain times — floods and droughts are all part of the game — is a risky business.

Rampaging nilgais is another pertinent reason. They eat up the entire corn. “Due to these antelopes, vegetable and maize cultivation has become an enormous task in Kosi region,” he adds.

Climate change pops up

If nothing else, fluctuations in weather pattern is the only certainty in Kosi-Seemanchal region. For example, until August 7, the state recorded 389.9mm rainfall, which is below average. Ideally, it should receive at least 657.6 mm.

Now compare this with last year’s data. Bihar saw floods in the monsoon season at least four times, with as many as 31 districts getting affected.

The Department of Science & Technology’s report titled ‘Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a Common Framework’ lists Bihar in the ‘high vulnerability’ zone.

“Climate change affects north Bihar the most. Maize cultivation needs water and sunshine in large quantities. Over the last few years, maize sowing and harvesting have been delayed by instabilities in weather patterns,” says Arun Kumar Jha, a retired official from Jharkhand Agriculture Department.

Selling below MSP

Sixteen years ago, the Bihar government under Nitish Kumar repealed the Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act, mostly known as mandi system, and replaced it with the Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS) for procuring food grains from farmers at a Minimum Support Price (MSP).

“Last year, the government had listed the MSP for maize at Rs 1,975 per quintal. However, we got only around Rs 1,500 per quintal in private mandis. We earned that much because poultry farms need bird feed. Paddy and wheat farmers are unable to get even that,” laments Harihar Nath Jha, a farmer and retired teacher.  


The maize farmers in Kosi-Seemanchal region of Bihar suffer a three-way whack of climate change, high input costs and rampaging animals (Photo: Sourced by Rahul Kumar Gaurav)


“In Bihar, selling to the PACS is a long-drawn process. The system is not in place in a regulated manner in all panchayats. The money is credited to the farmer’s account almost five months after the grain is sold. Since most farmers need cash immediately, they opt to sell at private unregulated mandis,” says Subodh Rai, the president of Katarani Chawal Sangh.

However, Sanjay Jha, Agriculture Department’s farmer coordinator in Saharsa, differs. “The PACS has improved a lot over the years. Farmers are usually in a hurry. So they sell to private mandis,” he says.

According to Kosi Navnirman Manch president Mahendra Yadav, the MSP does not concern small landless farmers. “Sharecroppers do not own land. They are into farming to feed their families. They do not care about MSP. If there is a surplus, they sell it locally.”

High hopes on ethanol plant

In April, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar unveiled Bihar’s first grain-based ethanol plant in Purnia. The plant is likely to benefit farmers, especially maize and rice growers, in Purnia and Kosi divisions.

“As much as 130 tonne rice husk and 150 tonne maize/rice will be bought from the farmers of Kosi-Seemanchal region for ethanol production in Purnia plant. The IndianOil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum will buy the fuel produced here. A 10-year contract has been signed to this effect,” says Manish Kumar, social media executive, State Department of Industries.

Bihar’s first grain-based ethanol plant in Purnia (Photo: Sourced by Rahul Kumar Gaurav)

About 20% of ethanol can be combined with petrol, which may bring down fuel prices in the country. Another good thing is that the by-product of ethanol production can still be used as livestock fodder.

"The daily production capacity of the plant is 65,000 litre. In addition, the plant will provide 27 tonne Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS), which can be sold as animal feed," he informs. 

"The DDGS production has not begun. But once it is launched, the animal fodder will be sold to livestock rearers to help boost milk production in the state.” 


Edited by Tanya Shrivastava

The cover image is of Gulab Bagh mandi in Purnia, Bihar which is considered the maize bowl of the country, sourced by Rahul Kumar Gaurav.

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