Editor's Note: As UP heads into Lok Sabha Election 2019, Firstpost surveys one of its most influential vote blocs: the farming community; the focus of this multi-article series of reported pieces is the agrarian crisis that has struck India's most populous state.
Agra: If the mood of farmers in Uttar Pradesh's Agra is anything to go by, potato could be the next sugarcane for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the second phase of Lok Sabha elections, due Thursday.
Like the anger of cane growers cost the BJP dearly in recent by-elections, fuming potato farmers in Uttar Pradesh's Agra-Hathras belt is giving the party jitters ahead of the second phase of Lok Sabha election.
Tuber cultivators dominate four districts — Agra, Hathras, Farrukhabad, and Aligarh — in Uttar Pradesh, all of which go to polls on 18 April.
Cultivators in the district are reeling under the impact of year-on-year bumper produce and falling market prices. They are mistrustful of last-minute doles and band-aid solutions announced on a spree. And they squarely blame the policies of the ruling party in Centre and state for multiplying their woes in a region where agricultural infrastructure and environmental impediments are one of the worst in the state.
Agra's farmers are victims of good produce
Vijay Bahadur Singh of Gangroya Village in Barauli Ahir Block says he is sustaining massive losses for the past three years. Because he is a fairly well-to-do farmer, he has managed to stay away from falling into a debt trap but all his savings are used up. For funding this year's produce, he finally had to mortgage a portion of his land.
"My land is so fertile I can produce three to four crops in a year. But there are no takers for the produce. I spend more than Rs 600 to Rs 700 per quintal, those with less fertile land have to put in much more. But the market price remains stuck at Rs 500 per quintal. This cycle never breaks," Singh rues.
"Some people in my village died of a shock last year after potatoes started selling for Rs 150 per quintal. You can calculate yourself — even if you forget about the lakhs of rupees we spend on seeds, fertilizers, transport etc, the rent of cold storages alone is Rs 220 per quintal," Singh states.
The condition of landless farmers, or those who have negligent land holdings, is even worse. Sukhi Singh Yadav of Gutila village shares 3 acres land with his brother but the farm lies in a belt where the water table has fallen to a level where only hard water is available even from borewells as deep as 60 metres.
"I manage to produce only enough to consume within my household and sell one or two sacks (each sack weighs roughly 50 to 52 kgs ie half a quintal) for an emergency. That is our safety net. Today, I only sold a sack for 250 bucks to a middleman in our village because it is unviable to transport one sack to the mandi, and I needed cash to treat my sick child. I had invested more than Rs 450 in ploughing that much potato."
Radheyshyam Yadav, an ageing agrarian, recently sold off his 10 acres of fertile land after his sons refused to take over farming due to dipping profits. He said it was impossible to escape the cycle of gloom in farming and that he would rather sell off the land while it was still profitable than push his sons under the same burden.
"Every second year there is a glut. There is no market for the produce and the market prices fall below what we invested. Then slightly well-off people like us decide to dump it in a cold storage and wait it out, while small farmers just sell it dirt cheap to get hold of some cash. Eventually, neither of us make money because by the time we sell enough to cover our investment, cold storage rent is higher than the market value of the produce. We have no other option but to let it rot, or to feed it to the cattle."
Fragile market, low prices double whammy for potato farmers
Radheshyam's observations are reflected in government data. According to Wholesale Price Index (WPI) data for the month of March released on Monday by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the WPI sub-component for primary food articles remains low despite a slight recovery as compared to previous months.
The WPI for potato, which has been caught in a downward spiral beginning July 2018, remained negative for six consecutive months. This means their prices are falling. The data showed slight improvement since the start of 2019 — WPI food inflation stands at 5.68 percent in March from — 3.24 percent just a few months ago in November primarily due to rise in prices of peas — but the pace of increase has been more muted.
However, on the ground, even the rise in inflation of primary food items means little to potato farmers battling a fragile market, which is firmly under the grip of middlemen and cold storage owners.
Cold storage cartel behind fluctuating markets?
Singh and Radheshyam blame a cartel of cold storage owners for keeping the markets unviable for small and medium farmers so that they are forced to relinquish claim on their produce.
The farmers cultivate potato by February end and release only a fraction of their products in the market as prices are traditionally low during the time a new crop is entering the market. The excess is stored at dozens of privately-owned cold storages, lining the Fatehpur and Jaipur roads in the city, until 20 November. That is the last date by when farmers are expected to use up all their stock and vacate the storage facility, as it has to be prepped for keeping the wheat crop which is due next season. The facility is booked by potato growers for nine months each year.
But most farmers complain that the cold storage owners start putting pressure on them from 20 October onwards.
It is around this time that the prices fall considerably in anticipation of excess stock flooding the markets. Since there are no fixed rates and very little market intervention from the government, mandi traders in cahoots with cold storage owners, collectively ensure that the prices are suppressed further at least till mid-November.
Ultimately, small farmers panic and give in as the market prices are lower than what they owe cold storage owners as rent. It is cheaper for them to just let the produce rot in storage instead of claiming it and paying the rent.
Farmers claim that storage owners then acquire their crop almost for free (barring the amount they spent on coolants etc, preserving the crop) and sell it at a nifty profit to big traders and industries that use processed food.
Cold storage owners, meanwhile, rubbish these claims and say that it is their loss too because they are forced to throw the produce without ever getting the rent.
"We are also suffering. Our income is directly linked to that of the farmers. If they are not paying rents, how will we make money?" says Shailendra Singh of Kansal Cold Storage. He, however, admits that they do manage to sell some potato after farmers leave them there to rot, but maintains that it does not cover the losses they have to incur.
Traditional BJP supporters miffed at local leaders but party confident of a comfortable win
Singh says back in 2017, his village had decided to boycott Assembly elections owing to a host of factors including a dispute over compensation of land acquired by government, but the local MLA Hemlata Diwakar, had begged the villagers to support BJP. "Humne keh diya bitiya vote sab tumhare hain par hum logo ki madad karo. (I told her that we will support you but please help us.)"
"I have never seen her face again since she won. Even if we go, her PA tells us she is asleep or is busy and we are always turned back," says Singh of Gangroya Village in Barauli Ahir.
Sukhi Singh of Gutila says he has never seen a reporter or a politician in his life. "No candidate has ever come to our village to ask for votes. We usually cast our vote in Akhilesh and Mulayam's name because they are the leaders of Yadav clan. I voted for Modi's name in last two elections. This time I won't say who will I support," Sukhi Singh says.
However, BJP leaders appear unperturbed by the rural distress.
Inder Singh, former mayor of Agra and one of the strongest local scheduled caste leaders says, "Modi ji has worked a lot for all classes. We have worked a lot for the farmers but it will take time to reflect on ground because awareness is less. Pilferage and corruption is another problem we are trying to deal with. But we are not getting results in all regions. We will solve all this before 2022."
Asked about farmers' anger, Inder Singh agrees his party's main focus and support base are rural voters.
Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya also appears confident of retaining Agra seat despite the agrarian crisis. "There are some problems in the potato belt but our CM has worked a lot for them. What did Congress or Mayawati and Akhilesh do in their time? We are at least trying to make a change," Maurya said.
He claimed that the Modi wave is undisturbed despite "some issues" with farmers.
Did demonetisation trigger current crisis for potato farmers?
The average price for November 2016 was Rs 916, which fell over 41.8 percent to Rs 470 in the month of December 2016. The downward trend continued and prices fell to as low as Rs 230 per quintal in March 2017, according to government data listing mandi prices of all commodities. This was much less than the average cost of production of Rs 900 per quintal and has remained so since November 2016.
Mahendra Singh, who grows potato in his 20 bigha farm, of Bandhanu village in Khandauli block is reticent when asked about his political inclination. But when another youth from his village vociferously defends Modi government on issues like national security and corruption, after discussing at length the agrarian crisis in Uttar Pradesh, Singh cuts in with some rage.
"Are Tughlaqi Sarkar hai madam. Hum to jyada kuch kehna nahi chahte aapne tughlaq ki kahani to suni hogo. Log kyun use pagal Badshah kehte the. (This is a Tughlaqi government. I don't want to say much. But tell me, do you know why everyone called Tughlaq the mad king.)"
When asked whether he was comparing demonetisation to Tughlaq's widely-ridiculed order to trade in leather coins, Singh smirked and said, "I'll leave that to your understanding."
The younger farmer, Rajat Sharma who was defending Modi up till now, looked thoughtfully at Mahendra and added, "Vaise galat nahi keh rahe. Humara bhi bohot nuksaan hua, market puri thap pad gayi thi. Tab ke jo daam gire to ab tak nahi uth paye (He is not wrong. We also suffered because the market was in a state of lockdown. The prices haven't recovered since),"
However, Rajat considers himself bhajapa ka aadmi, and no matter what, "desh ka pradhan mantri to Modi hi hona chahiye." A small-scale farmer, he does not hold the party's membership and has never considered getting it.
Muhali Lal, who had joined the group after observing us from a distance looks down at his hand with wisened eyes. "Vote is not fixed. Nobody's vote is fixed. Last time we all gave it to Modi but this time we haven't made up our minds. Until I press the button, I can change my mind, even inside the booth. It is true that potato farmers are in heavy distress But its also true that Modi did well in Pakistan. But that won't put bread on our tables."
Others, including Rajat and few of his other young farmer friends nod in agreement. Meanwhile, Sukhi of Gutila village is more candid about this. "All our work, in mandis, in payment of dues is of cash. People in the village are not that educated that they use PayTM etc for everything. The result was that all markets were operating at 20 percent efficiency for over six months. Nobody had the capacity to buy anything. Our kids were going hungry because the crop wasn't getting sold and nobody was in the position to hire us as daily waged labourer," Sukhi Singh says.
"Hum to sara dosh notebandi ko hi denge. Hain hum bhi bhajapa vale aadmi lekin ameeron ko pakadne ke chakkar me gareebo ka vinash kar diya sarkar ne, (I will blame demonetisation for this crisis. I was a BJP supporter but the party destroyed us in its effort to catch rich people)."
When asked whether he will cast his vote this election, he says that his entire village will vote in huge numbers because that is the only power they have in their hands. "Yahi ek parv hai jab satta unke hath me nahi humare hath me hai. Jaroor vote giregi, aur bhari matra me giregi."
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 17:19:58 IST