AP: Chilli leaves a bad taste as losses mount for cultivators in Bandur

Famed for its glossy red colour and hot flavour, Andhra Pradesh chilli has been ruling the spice markets, but that has not helped farmers cultivating leased plots.

Anantapur: Untimely rain has always been a cause of worry for tenant farmers in Bandur panchayat of Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. Once in every three years, or sometimes yearly, they lose their crops to rain — a major reason for their high indebtedness.

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“We suffer losses either due to excess rain or lack of it. The past three years have been difficult as the chilli crop was affected in one way or the other. I invested Rs 70,000 per acre, but got hardly Rs 30,000 in return. At least 20 families in my area suffered similar losses,” said Sikkanna (36), a tenant farmer from Bandur.

Famed for its glossy red colour and hot flavour, Andhra Pradesh chilli has been ruling the spice markets, but that has not helped farmers cultivating leased plots. As if uncertainties and hardships of tenancy were not enough, they also had to deal with virus infestations.

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Tenant farmers, Urimindi Gangadhar (40) and Talari Nagaraju (52), lost their chilli crop thrice, which made them turn to full-time farm labour.

“We have stopped growing chilli,” they said.

“I am growing paddy and maize as my chilli crop failed thrice,” said Kavali Ramesh (36), who also takes up tenant farming when weather is favourable.

“This time, chillies grown in red soil were more prone to viruses than those in black soil. At least two quintals of yield is likely from the latter, but I am hopeless about the red soil one. Now the market rate per quintal is from Rs 18,000 to 25,000. When all conditions favour, 12 quintals of chilli can be produced from an acre, fetching a profit of Rs 30,000 to 50,000 per acre,” Bollanaguddam Naveen (24), a farmer-cum-tenant farmer from Devagiri, told 101Reporters.

“I am still struggling to pay the interest on crop loans. Even in times of losses, we have to pay the landowner’s rent as agreed upon initially. I do not know anything about the Crop Cultivation Rights Card that the government offers,” Sikkanna added.

The cultivation rights card missing

In 2019, Andhra Pradesh government introduced the Andhra Pradesh Crop Cultivator Rights Act, 2019, to recognise and include tenant farmers in all its schemes by issuing a Crop Cultivator Rights Card (CCRC). The Revenue Department will issue the card once a tenant submits the agreement reached on land cultivation with the owner for a 11-month period. The document should be duly signed by the landowner. The village revenue officer in the village secretariat should countersign it.

However, most tenant farmers and landowners are unaware of CCRC.

“Traditionally, all landowner-tenant relationships are oral, without formal agreements,” said Chennareddy Basavaraju, a Bommanahal-based landowner and farmer whose fields are in Devagiri.

Marineni Anjaneyulu (60), another landowner, said the traditional arrangement has been working smoothly for both parties.

“I do not know about this Act. Our farming contracts are only oral agreements. We know the difficulties of tenant farmers and offer help in times of crop loss.”

Gadekota Senjappa (48), a landowner-cum-farmer from Devagiri, said, “Like me, some farmers make full investment for the crop. The sharecropper (tenant) must do everything from sowing to reaping. After the yield is sold, the investor takes his entire money back and shares the profit evenly.”

According to Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), which works extensively on the issues and rights of farmers, Anantapur district had a total of 54,941 tenant farmers in 2021-22. Of them, only 1,073 received CCRCs. The data for the current year from Rythu Bharosa Kendra (RBK) of Bandur panchayat indicated that only 13 tenant farmers had applied for CCRCs.

Some tenant farmers argue that landowners’ consent and signature are the main barriers for applying. Landowners fear they will lose ownership rights and they will have to pay up the bank loans if the tenants default.

The Government of India’s 2018 report on the strategy for doubling farmers’ income by 2022 addresses three main concerns: removing fear from landowners about losing land rights through leasing, building trust between landowners and tenants, and implementing necessary amendments in tenancy laws to make land leasing legal and open.

The Tenant Farmers Study Report-2022 from RSV makes five crucial recommendations to ensure justice to them (pp no.19). Amending the Crop Cultivator Rights Act, assigning the verification process to local government officials with a robust grievance redressal system, launching a high-profile campaign to assure landowners of their secure ownership title, establishing a comprehensive mechanism for bank loans, and recognising and addressing the unique challenges they face are these five recommendations.

“The 2019 Act needs to be amended to eliminate the need for landowner’s signature. It is impractical and unfair. A robust grievance mechanism is an immediate need to equally benefit tenant farmers and landowners,” Kiran Kumar Vissa, co-founder, RSV, told 101Reporters over the phone.

Poramboke farmers seek cultivation certificate

Many farmers owning less than five acre cultivate one to two acre of poramboke (waste) land as well to increase their earnings. Around 100 acre of poramboke land in Bandur has been under cultivation for the last two decades. Five small farmers told 101Reporters on condition of anonymity that farm labour was a better option these days as men are paid Rs 400 and women Rs 300 per day.

“For applying fertilisers and pesticides during the kharif season, Rs 500 is the daily wage,” they reasoned.

They said land rent for leased plots was Rs 30,000 a year with water facilities, and 25,000 without water facilities.

“Government schemes do not help us. The RBKs mostly benefit big farmers,” they added.

Some of them work as tenant farmers in landowners’ plots and cultivate poramboke land, besides cultivating their own plots.

“We could not get hold of the certificate of cultivation from the Revenue Department, despite requesting help from various political parties,” they claimed.

This certificate serves as an official documentation confirming the ownership of crops cultivated on the specified land.

Vissa said the certificate enabled poramboke farmers to access governmental schemes.

“Once they apply, the revenue officials conduct a physical verification to ensure that cultivation is happening on that land.”

Asked about the process, a Revenue Department official said on condition of anonymity that poramboke farmers can obtain the certificate by approaching the department through their elected representative, sarpanch and decisions taken at village meetings.

“Tenancy cultivation attestation falls within the purview of our department through RBKs,” he said.

Rising pest problem

“I expected 15 quintal of chilli yield from my one-and-a-half acre plot. Three months into cultivation, a virus infected it despite taking all precautions. I have no hopes now. I have got an e-crop booking done at RBK for crop insurance. No one from the Agriculture department visited my field, but representatives of fertiliser shops came and identified Geminivirus,” Patnamshetty Mallikarjuna (48), a farmer-cum-landowner from Devagiri, told 101Reporters.

According to the Department of Plant Pathology, SV Agriculture College, Tirupati, chilli suffers from a large number of viral, fungal, nematode and phytoplasma diseases, and chilli leaf curl (Begomovirus), cucumber mosaic, groundnut bud necrosis, tomato spotted wilt, watermelon bud necrosis, capsicum chlorosis, pepper mild mottle and tobacco mosaic viruses.

A village agriculture assistant said on condition of anonymity that the chilli crop came under the Horticulture Department.

“They have to make field visits and suggest control measures. They will do it,” he said.

101Reporters made repeated attempts to contact Rayadurgam Division Horticulture Officer, but there was no response.

Meanwhile, Mukkayyagari Onnuruswamy (55), a tenant farmer from Bandur whose three-acre chilli crop was damaged by the virus, claimed that in his 30 years of experience, he had not once seen any personnel from the Agriculture and Horticulture departments in his fields.

Echoing him, Bommanahal resident Komma Jagadiswara Reddy (60), said the virus infected three acre of his chilli crop in Devagiri.

“At the most I may get four quintal. I invested three lakh rupees. No agriculture officer visited my field. No one comes to our rescue,” he bemoaned.

Banduru, Devagiri and Haresamudram come under Bandur Panchayat.

“According to panchayat records, farmers have e-cropped 706 acre of chilli cultivation. Many have informed us about the crop loss. Remedial measures should be recommended by the Horticulture officer,” Gajjela Srikanth, Village Agriculture Assistant, RBK, Bandur, told 101Reporters.

“If the crops are damaged by too much rain or drought, the government may offer compensation. For virus infestation, it is unlikely. Horticulture officials will visit the fields if the virus is widespread and severe and suggest control measures. If the virus cannot be determined, the case will be referred to scientists,” sources in both Horticulture and Agriculture departments said.

Survey for the Incidence of Viral Diseases in Chilli in Andhra Pradesh, published by the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences in 2019, said that viral disease is one of the major limiting factors in chilli production. Maximum disease incidence of 45.05 per cent was recorded from Narpali mandal of Anantapur.

According to farmers, chillies were grown in nearly 6,000 acre this time under Tungabhadra Project High Level Canal, but virus infestation ruined the yield.

“I may get only four quintal from two acre against the 12 quintals that I can actually make from the six-month crop. This is the third consecutive year of loss. I have a loan of Rs 90,000 to pay back. The government should help small farmers like me, who are cultivating poramboke land, without setting conditions,” said Urumindi Onnurswamy (46) of Bandur.

Tenant farmers are an increasingly vulnerable group who face high cultivation costs and land rents, are dependent on landowners and are excluded from government schemes such as interest-free loans, crop insurance and disaster compensation.

(Paul Babu is an Andhra Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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