‘Sold My Cow, May Have to Sell Land’: Punjab’s Farmers In Distress
Bikkar Singh has a Rs 90,000 loan, one less cow than before, and two bhigas of land that may have to be sold too.
A Rs 90,000 loan weighing around his neck, a cow sold off to pay a pending installment, and two bhigas of the family's remaining land that may be next – the lockdown has been hard on 30-year-old Bikkar Singh from Gajju Majra in Punjab's Patiala district.
The sight is unlike anything Singh had expected a few months ago. All tractors are tucked inside homes and cattle are conspicuous by their absence in the fields of Patiala.
A lockdown is now essential to ‘flatten the curve’ – meaning, to reduce the rate of person-to-person infection in the country. Of the 1,251 confirmed COVID-19 cases in India, 39 have tested positive in Punjab, where there have also been three deaths.
While Bikkar reflects on how his family is slipping into penury, he also understands that these are extraordinary times. “This virus is scary. I don’t want anyone to get it. I’m doing everything I can to be safe and clean, but this time has been very hard on my finances,” he says.
A Farmer With One Less Cow & a Job at a Petrol Pump
From having three cows, Bikkar now has two.
“Before all this happened, I took a loan of Rs 90,000 and decided to be a dairy farmer. We had very little land anyway. With the money, I bought three cows, but recently I had to sell the third as she was sick all the time. I didn’t give up on her. I spent a lot of money trying to treat her. The doctor would charge Rs 400 for every visit and administer medicines and injections. But God had other plans. I had to sell her.”
Bikkar had bought the cow at Rs 45,000 a year ago and sold it for Rs 15,000. "I hear she is giving 17-18 litres of milk now," he says, his voice low, adding that she seems to be doing fine now.
It was the Rs 15,000 he got from selling her that he paid an installment on the loan he took to buy her. The remaining milk he is selling at a 50 percent loss. “I used to sell at Rs 30-32 a litre but then now all the private companies are closed. The government does not come here to help us, I have inquired from other dairy farmers. For two days now, I am selling to this other private guy who is giving me Rs 15-16 a litre. At this rate, I may have to sell my land too,” he said.
Bikkar says that he doubles up as a workman in the petrol pump close to the village now. "I have to do this, but even here, the salary comes in late every month.”
He is waiting patiently for things to get better.
‘I’ve Lost Rs 12,000 This Week’
Kuldeep Singh, a 45-year-old dairy farmer from Alipur Jatta with a family of four, has five cows. "The private guys come only once a day and pick up milk."
Kuldeep had high expectations of this year as milk prices had finally normalised.
“For at least three years before 2020, the price of 1 litre of milk was Rs 22. This was mainly because over half of the milk had water mixed in it. This year, the government had conducted a lot of raids and the rates normalised to Rs 32 a litre, but then the lockdown happened.”
Now Kuldeep sells milk for Rs 22 a litre, at a Rs 10 loss per litre. "You can say I've lost at least Rs 12,000 this week. These private guys only just came but for one week, there was no sale at all. The money we are getting now is being used to pay for the cows’ feed. There is no real benefit from this sale either," he says.
For his four acres of land, he is not able to buy pesticides and insecticides. "The markets are mainly closed. There is a lot of confusion and fear," he says.
Govt-Owned Dairy Plant a Relief for Some
Weathering the storm better than most is 40-year-old Harpreet Singh who is more financially secure.
From Gajjumajra village in Patiala, he has a family of five. “I have 12 cows and I am spending a lot of money to take care of them. But the local private company we would sell to has closed down and government officials are saying they will not buy from us. What do I do? If I do not milk the cow regularly, she will fall sick and die.”
So what does Harpreet do with the milk? “We are not even able to sell the milk in the village as the police does not let us step out. We are making the cows drink the milk again and making use of it as much as we can at home,” he answers
He says he wished the government helped farmers like him. Private players who have shown interest are telling Singh they will buy his milk for half the price. For what was sold at Rs 33 a litre, they're offering Rs 15 a litre. "I have not agreed to this yet as this price is very low. But I may have to.”
Unlike Bikkar, Harpreet can afford to hold out.
He was able to find some relief in selling milk to the Punjab government-owed VERKA plant. “I’’ve already had a loss of about Rs 30,000. How much more can I withstand? VERKA started buying from me a day ago (30 March) for Rs 29 a litre, still a few rupees’ loss but this is much better than the rate by other private agencies,” he says.
‘Farmers May Hit The Streets’: Bharat Kisan Union
Bharat Kisan Union Ugrahan General Secretary Sukhdev Kokri told The Quint that they had sent a demand charter to PM Narendra Modi and Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh when the lockdown began.
“The dairy farmers are struggling and the government is not paying adequate attention to the matter. They are only interested in complete lockdown, which we are also in support of, but in the long run, the government has to find solutions. If the government does not find a way to buy, use and store this milk, then don’t negate the possibility of farmers coming out on streets. Right now they are not, but when it starts hurting them in the long-term, they will,” he says.
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