The humble potato’s day of revolt
New Delhi: Kushal Pal, a potato farmer from Agra’s Khandauli, adjusts his Gandhi topi, which bears the legend, aalu utpadak (potato producer), the garland of potatoes around his neck and finally settles down for a chat, on a sack of potatoes. Pal is one of the farmers who travelled all the way from Agra, carrying 10 bags (each bag weighs 50 kg) of potatoes with them to participate in the Kisan Mukti Yatra, organized by a coalition of 150 farmer unions, which culminated in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Wednesday.
Apart from the larger issues, Pal and scores of other potato farmers are here to protest against the steep fall in potato prices following overproduction this year.
“What you are seeing right now is a culmination of months of hardship. It all actually started with demonetisation. Till then potatoes were fetching anywhere between Rs500 and Rs600 per packet. Our sales evaporated overnight. Farmers had to take loans for the next year’s harvest and now there is hardly any sale. Potato prices have plummeted between Rs3 and Rs4 per kilo. It’s a huge blow to the farmer,” said Pal, a politically savvy farmer with firm views on the rights of the kisan and what the government should do about them. His yield this year was more than 888 bags out of which he has sold only 300. “I have spent Rs15 lakh on this year’s crop. I have earned back just Rs2 lakh,” said Bhagirath, another potato farmer from Khandauli who along with Pal has made the trek to Delhi.
It is a story that is being played out in nearly every major potato producing state in India be it Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal or Gujarat. Potato production rose 7% year-on-year to 46.5 million tonnes in 2016-17 which led to a dip in wholesale prices. The note ban announced in November and the cash crunch which followed further dampened prices. Prices fell from over Rs10 per kg in early November (2016) to less than Rs5 per kg in February, in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra mandi. Currently, the best quality tuber is selling for Rs4 per kg in Agra, while it costs between Rs9 and Rs11 to grow a kilo, according to farmers.
Haryana farmers were worse off with wholesale prices plunging to as low as Re1 a kg in June. In Kurukshetra district, unable to find buyers, most farmers had left their potatoes to rot by the roadside while some lent truckloads to protesting farmers, Mint reported in June.
Potatoes, now a popular tuber in Indian cuisine, originated in Peru and was introduced to India in the early 17th century by the Portuguese. Today it is an integral part of the diet in all parts of the country, from the biryani to the dosa. It is widely believed that its popularity and widespread usage came from the fact that unlike other vegetables introduced by the Portuguese like chillies and tomatoes, the potato was more easily accepted in orthodox kitchens.
This particular tuber has also played a very important role in a particularly fraught chapter of human history—the great potato blight, which led to large-scale deaths in Ireland and subsequently large-scale migration to America.
However, for the Indian farmer, the history of the potato is inconsequential as he stares at a future where the tuber could well be an instrument of his ruin. What is needed at this point of time, according to Swaraj Abhiyan president Yogendra Yadav, is implementing a deficiency price payment system where the government directly transfers to farmers, the difference between an assured price and actual market price (when prices crash below a floor price).
“We need a smart economic policy that addresses issues on a long term basis.” Referring to the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to buy 1 lakh tonne of potatoes directly from the farmer at a price of Rs487 per quintal, Yadav said, “Buying is not a solution. For starters, 1 lakh tonne is not even 1% of what the state produces. Secondly, it’s not just potatoes. There are farmers who are stuck with crops of garlic, mustard and pulses which fared poorly.”
But what Pal and others like him want more than anything is the assurance that farmers matter. “Who cares about us? Even as a community, we come together only when we are dying. The government may promise to buy from us but then they go ahead and impose quality restrictions which are hard to meet. We are not consulted before prices are fixed. We are not consulted before policies are decided. We need someone to listen,” he said.