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Telangana chilli crisis: How agricultural produce has become a political hot potato for KCR

It is mirch masala that K Chandrasekhar Rao is finding too hot to handle. And if former Union minister Renuka Chowdhury's suggestion is heeded to by farmers, the Telangana chief minister will soon receive chilli packets sent by courier to his official residence in Hyderabad.

For close to two months now, chilli farmers in Telangana have been a frustrated lot. They are angry with the government for having led them up the garden path last year, encouraging them to grow chillies. That led to the state recording a bumper crop of over 3 lakh tonnes. The excess production led to a price crash — 1/6th of what they got last year.

The facts of the story expose how the agriculture and marketing ministries in Hyderabad and New Delhi are out of sync with the situation on the ground. Khammam district is ground zero for chilli production in Telangana. Last year, the area under chilli cultivation in the district increased from 24000 hectares in 2015 to 30000 hectares. This is because the Rs 13000 per quintal record price that the farmers got the previous year, prompted the Telangana government to push them to grow more chillies instead of cotton.

 Telangana chilli crisis: How agricultural produce has become a political hot potato for KCR

Telangana chilli farmers went on a rampage on 27 April. Image Courtesy: Youtube

When the government nudged the farmers to do so, it was taken as an assurance that it will ensure the farmers got more or less the same price as last year. Its inability to do so now reflects a complete disconnect and lack of coordination, leaving farmers in disarray. The situation started taking a turn for the worse from 10 April when thousands of chilli sacks started piling up in the Khammam market yard, with the more angry farmers even dumping their produce on the road. On 28 April, the frustration boiled over with farmers ransacking the market yard office and setting chilli bags ablaze.

"The government failed to foresee the production of chillies and the impact it would have on the market prices. The cartel formed by traders and commission agents, who pegged the prices low also played their part. Subsequently, the way the ruling party called the farmers as rowdies and goons was worse,'' says D Sravan, general secretary of the Telangana Congress party.

The TRS government, taken aback at the mass expression of anger, booked cases against farmers and political opponents TDP and Congress for fomenting violence in Khammam. "It is the Centre that has the responsibility of ensuring minimum support price (MSP) for farmers,'' points out Harish Rao, Telangana marketing minister, washing his hands off the crisis.

As evidence, the government points out that it had written to the Centre to give bonus of at least Rs 1500 over and above the price they got per quintal. It says the NDA government is yet to respond. It is now under pressure from the opposition to set up a Market Intervention Fund (MIF) of Rs 500 crore to help farmers get remunerative prices. A long term solution however will be getting on the electronic National Agricultural Market (eNAM) for online trade of agricultural produce.

But agriculture activist Suresh Ediga questions the efficacy of the mobile apps created to disseminate information on agricultural produce. On 28 April, for instance, he points out that tomatoes were sold for just Rs 500 per quintal at the Gudimalkapur market near Hyderabad. The same day in Kanjirapally in Kottayam district of Kerala, the going rate was Rs 3800 per quintal. How the farmer makes use of the data is something that is not being looked into and nothing is being done to help him with that.

Though Rao insists that chillies command the best price in Telangana, that is no solace for the farmers. The chilli cauldron continues to boil with the opposition finding in it a stick to beat the state government with. The situation is no better at any other market yard in Telangana. Close to 80000 tonnes arrived at the Warangal market yard on Tuesday, but the prices were Kammam-like. Hyderabad market reported the same, where farmers from different districts had come in the hope that the state capital will fetch them better returns.

Like Jaipal Reddy who travelled from Gadwal, 190 kilometres from Hyderabad. He had been sitting on his produce for over a month now in the hope that prices will go northwards and is now forced to sell it at Rs 2000 per quintal.

"An entire season's hard work has gone waste. Why did they promise us the moon when they cannot keep their word,'' asks Reddy.

The crisis is not restricted to chillies or Telangana alone. At Malakpet market in Hyderabad, I meet Mahadev Krishna, a farmer who has traveled from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra to sell his eight tonnes of onion produce. Another 25 farmers had accompanied the 34-year-old farmer with their harvest on the desperate 520 kilometre-long trip.

"In Ahmednagar, onions were selling only at Rs 4 per kilogramme. We were told that we would get Rs 8 to 10 per kilogramme in Hyderabad. Each farmer shelled out Rs 12000 for the transport and porters to travel only to find that the rate here is only Rs 5 kilogramme. We had no option but to sell the produce,'' said Krishna who rues that he has not even been able to cover his cultivation cost.

Maharashtra and Telangana figure in the top three states when it comes to farmer suicides, which is why this agrarian distress needs to be treated with the importance it deserves. Realising this could be a political hot potato, Rao has promised round-the-clock free power to the farm sector and fertilizer subsidy of Rs 8000 per acre from next year.

But with the present tense, Rao will need to do something about the hot and pungent onions and chillies fare on his plate. At the moment, they promise the farmer who cannot even repay his debt with the money he gets, only an empty stomach.

"Instead of promising Rs 8000 per acre from next year, they should give us better price for our chillies now, so we can survive,'' says Ramulu also from Gadwal, waiting for the third day in a row in Hyderabad to sell his stock of chillies. He says he needs the money to pay the school fee for the next academic year for his son Mahesh.

"If I cannot get sufficient money, I will have to shift him to a government school. What else can I do?'' he rues.

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Updated Date: May 03, 2017 16:38:50 IST

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