Harvest of misery: How note ban destroyed Punjab's potato farmers
The woes of Punjab's farmers seem to be unending. This time it is the potato farmers standing at the crossroads facing the devastation of their crop.
The ripple effect of demonetisation brought about by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government is now translating into sheer misery for these farmers in the potato belt covering Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Moga and even the Una district of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.
With prices of the crop hitting rock bottom at Rs 3 per kg, the farmers are looking towards intervention from the Punjab government that has initiated steps to provide them with some relief. The farmers say that the potato selling at Rs 3 per kg is of the best quality.
JPS Gill, a farmer and a senior functionary of Jalandhar Potato Growers Association (JPGA) told Catch that the farmers had started harvesting potato from October to November-end for the fresh sales. Punjab's harvest for the fresh sales precedes that of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat by around 20 days.
“But demonetisation led to only 60% of this harvest since there were no returns. Besides 25% of last years produce was also lying in cold storage. The farmers left the remaining crop standing expecting the prices to go up in February when they start the harvest for cold storage chains. With the prices still not going up, the farmers now face a glut because of the overlapping produce,” explained Gill.
Problem of plenty
Punjab produces approximately 25 lakh tonnes of potatoes every year. Of this 18 lakh tonnes are for cold storage while the remaining seven lakh tonnes are for fresh sale and consumption.
Gill further pointed that with the prevailing negative sentiment among traders with regards to the future trading of the crop, the farmers have been left high and dry.
He also pointed to the problems the farmers faced in supplying the potato seeds across the country while the fresh harvest was on in November. Punjab supplies these seeds to states as far off as West Bengal and Gujarat.
“This was the time when the entire country was facing a cash crunch on account of demonetisation. We did not have cash in hand to give money to truckers for transportation of seeds and neither did the traders at other places have the money to make cash payments. Hence the entire cycle got disrupted,” Gill said.
The Doaba region grows potato seed on 90,000 hectares and supplies it to several states. The state supplies about 1.1 metric tonnes of potato seed to other states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and other potato producing states meeting around 63% of the seed demand of the country every year.
Reports quote farmers saying that the government announcement allowing farmers to purchase seed with old currency notes had come very late when the potato-sowing season in the other states was almost about to come to an end.
Punjab farmers were selling potato seeds at Rs 30 to Rs 35 per kg to the traders from the other states before demonetisation but after 8 November the buyers simply did a vanishing act.
Now they are stuck with a glut of potato produce in the peak harvesting season of February and March. The farmers said that the prices at present are one-tenth of what they were last year.
This crisis has lead them to approach the Punjab government a couple of days back seeking that the 2% market fee and 2% Rural Development Fee (RDF) contribution charged from them be waived off and the 5% tax paid to the commission agents be reduced.
They also sought a freight subsidy up to 60% from the present rate of Rs 200 per quintal.
Referring to their problems in the post demonetisation announcement, the farmers asked the government to help them export their produce pointing out that Punjab’s potato is preferred in Russia and Iran, Pakistan and some other countries in the Middle East.
The government has responded positively to their concerns and has directed its agencies – Punjab Agro and Markfed – to effectively intervene in the market on a 'no profit no loss' basis to bail out the potato growers besides realising better prices to them.
Help in hand
At a meeting chaired by him, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal decided to reduce the market fee and RDF from 2% to 0.25% each. Badal also decided to slash the rates of the commission charged by agents from 5% to 1% with immediate effect.
Badal has asked Punjab Agro and Markfed to explore the feasibility of export potential of potatoes to Russia, Dubai, Iran, Sri Lanka and other countries for which the state government would subsidise the freight.
Apart from this, the agriculture department had also been directed to undertake distant marketing of potatoes in the other parts of the country to ensure better prices to the growers. The department has also been directed to ensure rational utilisation of storing capacity of cold stores across the state to curb the malpractices of space hoarding.
It was also decided at the meeting that an advisory would be issued to the department of education and jails besides other government institutions for optimum utilisation of potatoes in the mid-day meal scheme and for the consumption of jail inmates for rich nourishment – which would also boost the sale of potato in the state.
JPGA is looking forward to signing an agreement with the government agencies for selling 25 lakh potato bags to south India along with an export of 1.5 lakh tonnes to Iran and Russia in the next couple of days.
The matter was also raised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in its poll campaign for the assembly elections held recently.
State Convener Gurpreet Singh Waraich had said that the farmers of Punjab were at the receiving end due to the callous attitude of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP government pointing out that the Punjab Mandi Board had not developed any marketing strategy to help the farmers in case of high yield of crops. He said that there was also no mechanism in place to compensate the potato growers.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen