Kolkata: Potato farmers Madhusudan Mondal and Lakshman Adak, in their mid-50s, live 15km apart in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Both have produced a bumper crop this year, but that has meant different things for Mondal and Adak.
Mondal earned around Rs3.5 lakh selling 150 tonnes of potatoes to PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd, having signed a contract with the maker of carbonated beverages and Frito-Lay chips to sell his produce to it at a predetermined price.
Adak hasn’t been able to harvest even two tonnes of his crop for want of cold storage space.
He is one of around 500,000 farmers in West Bengal who are in distress after producing a bumper crop of 9.5-10 million tonnes (mt) of potatoes this year, compared with 5.5 mt in 2009.
No takers: Trucks and carts loaded with potatoes queue outside a cold storage in Singur, West Bengal. The state’s cold storages can only hold about half of this year’s crop of 10 million tonnes. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Cold storages in the state have the capacity to preserve only half the quantity produced this year, according to Swapan Mondal, president of the West Bengal Cold Storage Association.
Potatoes are normally preserved in cold storages from March to November, and because they are filled to capacity, there are no takers for the staple vegetable even at Re1 per kg, forcing farmers such as Adak to stall harvesting.
“Our crop is perishing in the fields for the last 20 days as potatoes do not survive this scorching sun for even two weeks,” said Arati Chakraborty, who mortgaged her two bighas of land to moneylenders to borrow Rs30,000 at the beginning of the cropping season.
A bigha is roughly one-third of an acre.
As the mercury rises—it’s already approaching 40 degrees Celsius in some parts of West Bengal—there’s little hope that Chakraborty will be able to harvest her crop and repay her debt this year.
Last year, the crop failed and farmers got only up to Rs7 a kg, recalls Swapan Mondal.
Retail prices had shot up to Rs22 a kg, forcing the state government to offer subsidies on the staple vegetable—it bought potatoes from cold storages and sold them in 12 retail markets in Kolkata and its suburbs at Rs13 a kg.
This year the situation is opposite. The state government has asked consumer cooperatives under the West Bengal State Consumers Cooperative Federation Ltd (Confed) to procure at least 1 mt of potatoes from farmers at Rs175 per 50kg bag, or Rs3.50 per kg. It has sanctioned Rs400 crore for the proposed procurement.
“It’s just a drop in the ocean...,” said Confed’s chief executive officer Sujan Mitra. “We are talking of a surplus of at least 4 mt.”
“When we have a bumper crop like this, we normally sell potatoes in other states such as Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Assam,” said Mortaza Hossain, West Bengal’s minister of agricultural marketing. “But even that isn’t possible this year because other potato-growing states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have also had a very good crop.”
West Bengal accounts for around one-third of the country’s total potato production, according to Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute.
“But the trade is controlled by only two-three large players, who are influential people and wouldn’t ever allow such interventions to be effective,” he said. “If the state is unable to sell potatoes in other states, it should look to sell them in neighbouring countries.”
Adak is struggling to reclaim his wife and daughters’ jewellery that he mortgaged with a local cooperative bank to borrow Rs10,000.
On the other hand, Madhusudan Mondal, who sold his crop to PepsiCo India, has just bought a new motorcycle.
Mondal, who began growing potatoes for PepsiCo India two years ago on only 62 bighas, tilled 350 bighas this year.
PepsiCo India, which in 2004 began contract farming in West Bengal with just 800 farmers, now has some 6,500 farmers growing potatoes for it on 2,250 acres.
“We bought 30,000 tonnes of potatoes from six districts of West Bengal this year, which is more than 50% of our total procurement in India,” said Nischint Bhatia, executive vice-president (farm products) at PepsiCo India.
Although Left parties such as the Forward Bloc, of which agricultural marketing minister Hossain is a key leader, oppose contract farming, PepsiCo India is expanding in West Bengal and in the next three-four years, the company is looking to bring at least 4,500 acres in the state under contracted cultivation, according to Bhatia.
But Sarkar said companies such as PepsiCo India cannot make any significant difference to potato growers in West Bengal because only a small section of the farmers would be able to conform to the company’s standards.
Aveek Datta and Shutapa Paul contributed to this story.