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HindustanTimes Tue,23 Sep 2014

Hot Potatoes and Broken Hearts

Sunita Aron, Hindustan Times   December 26, 2011
First Published: 15:36 IST(26/12/2011) | Last Updated: 12:05 IST(27/12/2011)

This could be a script for a Bollywood flick. A poverty-stricken farmer desperately waiting to get a price for his produce (potatoes) as he can't further delay the wedding of his daughter fixed about three years back.

But the market scene is grim, income in the negative. As a last resort, he decides to sell his five bigha land. The daughter strongly protests as she has younger brothers to be taken care of. An emotional father says, "I will have to break your marriage then."

The heart-broken girl, who belongs to this era of quick communication, telephones her fiancé and shares the trauma of her father and family. The boy swings into action. A dramatic dialogue follows and this gets conveyed: "There is no question of breaking the marriage that our parents had fixed."

Immediately the young, spirited boy drives to his fiancé's village, about 15 km away, on his motorbike and brings her home on the pillion. The girl's parents follow him, but thankfully there is no altercation, no fisticuffs. Instead, the village pradhan, who is the uncle of the boy, plays the Good Samaritan.

Like every Bollywood film, there is a happy ending. The entire village  attends the simple wedding ceremony with the pradhan hosting a 'dawat'.

And the couple begin a new life, happy to be together. Bhola Singh Kushwaha , the pradhan of Anogi village, is all praise for his nephew Deep Chand Kushwaha. "He honoured our word and was not taken in by offers of dowry from well-off families," says the pradhan.

Deep says, "How could I have broken the three-year-old relationship? It's a matter of our emotions also." The bride Lalita, who is from Jalalpur, has gone to her parents house. Her father Hari Ram Kushwaha is happy that he could save his only source of income - those five bighas. He was not entitled to the state government's  financial help for wedding of daughters as he does not fall in the category of below poverty line.

The pradhan laments, "Doesn't this expose the faulty policies of the government that they draft sitting in their chambers?  The government should redefine the definition of BPL and its policy of doling out financial help for the marriages of daughters of poor farmers."

The crux of the problem is that potato has become too hot a crop for farmers to handle, especially when its production is beyond their expectations. "Much of the problem is also because farmers here do not want to grow any other crop. They take advance from cold storage and when there is a glut and prices in the market crash, they don't even lift their own sacks. Eventually, the cold storage owners throw them on the streets to rot," explains Sugar Singh, the district horticulture officer.

The core sector of the economy in this Agra-Farrukhabad-Kannauj belt is agriculture and potato is the main cash crop of 80% of the farmers here. However, for the past few years the dreams of small and marginal farmers have crashed because of this crop.

As farmers struggle every day to make their two ends meet, education and marriage of their children are becoming a major casualty. Suicides have started happening, though thankfully it has not spread like Vidarbha in Western India. Last month 23-year-old Bijnesh of Baisapur village had committed suicide.

His family and friends had later told scribes that Bijnesh had been depressed because potato was not fetching him a remunerative price and thus he did not lift his 1000 sacks from cold storage. (One sack has 55 kg of potatoes) Marriages are broken or deferred indefinitely."Roughly 10% farmers are forced to sell their land while 60% marriages have been put on hold in about 500 villages here," said Rajeev  Kumar of Bhawanipur village.

Other farmers nod their head in agreement with some of them reeling out cases that they were aware of.  "In Bhawanipur only, two farmers sold off their land for R10, 000," said Kushwaha adding, "At least, three to four farmers have kept weddings of their daughters on hold in the same village." Phool Singh, who is from Jawala village, shares his own experience: "It's  over a year that I had fixed my daughters marriage. But I had to put it on hold as I don't have the money for the ceremonies." He mentions names of  other farmers in his own village where marriages have been deferred indefinitely.

Pradhan Kushwaha says that he is in touch with many pradhans and the problem is acute. Potatoes are now selling in the 'negative'; many farmers are not picking up their sacks from cold storages as market dynamics don't suit them. According to their calculations, small farmer, with a land holding of five bigha, used to earn approximately R50,000 in a year till 2009.

The farmers say that till a few years back, they were exporting potatoes to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and some other countries. Also floods in Bihar and West Bengal had got them good price for their crop during last two years.

Now there is no such demand for potatoes in the market. Sugar Singh, however, insists that potatoes from Kannauj are sold in the local market as there is no proper rail connectivity.

As there is no farmers' union, they have not been able to fight for their  demands that includes cold storage subsidy, better rail connectivity, setting a potato mandi and, processing plants etc. They have given memorandum to the local leaders who have failed to get them any relief.

Akmal Hussain, a Chennai-based senior scientist of government of India, is  passionate about his home town. A social activist, he runs a website with  an ultimate aim to attain status of a model district for Kannauj. He says, "There was a time when there were two union ministers from potato growing belt, Shiela Dixit and Khursheed Alam. Both promised a potato processing unit but there has been not even an inch of forward movement in the past 25 years".

Ironically, though they hold the hot potato responsible for their plight, none of them believe that it would be an election issue. It's a stronghold of Samajwadi Party and it's locked in a triangular fight with the BSP and the BJP, they say.


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