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(Photo: Mint)
(Photo: Mint)

Food prices set to rise amid transport curbs to contain pandemic

  • If rural markets shutter across producer states, the moderate price rise seen so far, driven by panic purchases, could spike
  • Traders in large wholesale markets in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are unwilling to operate due to fear of Covid-19 infections

New Delhi: Urban India is staring at a possible spike in food prices and scarcity of fruits and vegetables in the coming days, as transport curbs and pandemic fears open up a wide chasm between the farm and the fork.

Major crop-growing states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh have imposed lockdowns or curfews in a desperate attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Inter-state goods transport is at risk as well, as truck drivers are harassed at borders, and casual labourers who sort, grade and load harvests are in short supply. So, while consumers in towns and cities may shell out more and fresh produce turns scarce, farmers will have to dump their perishables or leave the crop to rot in the fields. If mandis (rural markets) shutter across producer states, the moderate price rise seen so far, driven by panic purchases, could spike.

Mint spoke to stakeholders in several states to learn if a country-wide lockdown will translate into a food crisis in cities. The signs are already here: in Noida, retailers sell potatoes at 40 per kg and onions at 50 per kg, sharply higher than last week.

A trader from Delhi’s Azadpur wholesale market said that around 205 truckloads of onions are inside the market, but there are only a few buyers as small retailers and pushcart sellers are unable to reach. “The situation is likely to worsen in the next 2-3 days as mandis are shut in states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Policemen are standing outside the mandi gate and not allowing retailers to come in," the trader said, asking not to be named.

According to Pankaj Khandelwal, managing director of Mumbai’s INI Farms which handles 300 tonnes of fresh fruits every day, inter-city transport is severely affected despite clear orders from the Centre and state governments to allow transport of essential items. “Our vehicles were stopped in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Scared truck drivers are running away. We are now clearing existing stock from warehouses and have asked farmers to stop harvesting," Khandelwal said.

All five southern states have imposed restrictions on the movement of trucks carrying perishable produce, said Raghuvir Badrinath of Lawrencedale Agro Processing from the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.

Traders in large wholesale markets in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are unwilling to operate due to fear of Covid-19 infections. Rural mandis are busy hubs attended by thousands, comprising daily wage earners, farmers, retailers and traders.

Almost all major grain markets are now shut in Madhya Pradesh, while fruits and vegetable markets are open for a few hours, said Kedar Sirohi, a farmer leader from Harda. “If the situation worsens, farmers who are harvesting their winter crops like chickpeas and wheat will suffer heavy losses. In my village, tomato growers are now selling their produce for 3-5 per kg. They are scared to carry the harvest to towns. They are afraid of the police and that they may return infected with the virus," Sirohi said.

It will be a disaster if trade in wholesale markets comes to a halt, warned Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary. “The government will have to issue clear instructions so that inter-state transport of farm produce is allowed while mandis function while following hygiene protocols."

“Nobody knows what is going to happen in the next few days. Supplies from states are dwindling. The government has to take immediate steps to prevent a scarcity situation," said the procurement head of a major Delhi-based retailer who did not want to be named.

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