Farmer unrest reaches Himachal: Why the country's tomato bowl is simmering
As farmer unrests rage across the country on various agrarian issues, its ripples have also reached the 'Tomato Bowl of Himachal'. Tomato producers have started galvanising support for their long pending demands.
Solan district of Himachal Pradesh has earned itself the name – City of Red Gold – for producing top quality tomatoes that are consumed across India. But the tomato farmers have been facing hard times because of the government's apathy to genuine concerns.
In the poll year, these farmers have made up their mind to ensure that their concerns find a place in the poll manifestos of different parties and are, hopefully, later implemented. They are organising some major protests in the days to come for their long pending demand of a public sector tomato processing unit that can help the farmer sustain himself.
They are also demanding remuneration as per the recommendations of the Swaminathan Panel besides asking for fixing of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce.
The farmers plan to hold a convention of tomato producers from across the state on these issues and other related subjects in the month of July.
According to the farmers, at least 90% of those engaged in agriculture in Solan district are engaged in tomato production.
The district tops the producers in the state while the crop is also being grown now in parts of Sirmaur district, Chaupal and Karsog areas of the state. The Him Sona variety grown here is perhaps the best in the country and can survive for up to a week after it is harvested.
Despite all things good about the tomatoes being grown here, the producers have been at the receiving end of bad deals, year after year, because of various factors.
Last year it was a glut that led to the crash in prices where farmers were compelled to sell the tomatoes for as low as Rs 3 to Rs 4 per kg in the mandis.
The farmers say that the new low in Indo-Pak relations too has taken a toll on them as the tomato exports to the neighbouring country have fallen drastically.
“It is here that the need for a processing unit arises. It comes as a shock that despite this being among the top tomato producing districts in the country, the government never bothered to set up such a unit here while the political leadership in the country is often heard making tall claims on value addition and promotion of food processing. There is no private processing unit here either,” said Mohit Verma, an office bearer of Sehri Panchayat.
He pointed out that despite the prices having crashed, the produce sold from the Solan vegetable mandi amounted to around Rs 42 crore last year. The sales at other mandis like Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Delhi were in addition to this amount.
The farmers say that if there is a processing unit in the area, they can avoid the price crash for their produce.
“The commission agents know that we are compelled to sell off our produce at the earliest since this is a perishable commodity and they fix the lowest of rates. If there is a processing unit we can hold onto our produce and can dictate a higher price since we have the option of selling it for making puree or tomato sauce. Besides we will also be able to get some returns on the produce that has over-ripened or burst. The demand is not new and has been raised by various farmer organisations time and again. But it is high time now,” said a participant at a meeting of tomato growers in Sheel village of Top ki Ber Panchayat on Monday.
The farmers say that the government apathy can be gauged from the fact that one of the ministers suggested they set up a processing unit themselves.
“If we had the crores to do so would we be asking the government for it?” said another participant.
What they want
There are a series of demands that the tomato producers want the political parties to take up in the electoral battle scheduled towards the end of the year.
“The primary thing is to provide proper scientific guidance to the tomato growers which is absent. The tomato producer also needs to be assured of a proper return because he is hardly left with anything after the high input costs. There is no subsidy on quality insecticides and pesticides that cost as high as Rs 1,000 for 30 gms and can be used for only ten pumps that cover only 2.5 bighas,” pointed out JS Thakur who has taken up full-time tomato production after his retirement in his native village of Kyar in Oachghat.
Kush Thakur of Shamrod village near Nauni added that the government needs to intervene on a large scale to prevent the produce being hit by various diseases like 'Sundhi' that destroyed a large portion of the produce last year.
“The economic burden on the farmer starts right from procuring of seeds that cost anywhere above Rs 700 per kg. Tomato production is a non-mechanised, highly labour intensive, endeavour. The farmer must get his dues for the efforts he puts in,” he said.
The farmers also want the provision of basic amenities at the mandis.
“It is a trauma for a farmer who has to spend a night there with no place to rest and without proper water and toilet facilities. Then there is the exploitation by the commission agents which no one wants to end,” Kush added.
The farmers are seeking that their produce be procured by the commission agents according to its weight in kgs and according to its grade instead of lump sum crates.
“There is a variation of two to three kgs in different crates and it is the farmer who suffers the loss. The administration also needs to keep a check on the malpractices going on in the mandis. One of the major issues is that of improper billing. We are determined to make the tomato a political issue this time,” said Jai Singh, a producer from Patta Bharari area of the district.
“We will bring together the tomato producers from across the state together for the convention that is being planned. Besides the issue of tomatoes, we will also be raising the issue of menace created by wild animals and water scarcity at the event. These issues are all inter-linked. We are right now collecting facts and figures about the plight of tomato producers which we will be highlighting,” Pyare Lal Verma of Kisan Sabha told Catch.
The tomato producers also want a transparent and feasible model of compensation for their crop that is destroyed in a natural calamity or because of some other reason.
The series of protests that are being planned are expected to become key electoral issues in this part of the state as the campaign hots up.