Over the next few weeks, people in Punjab and even neighbouring areas could well be on a potato diet.
Forced by a glut of potato crop, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has directed officers to increase the use of potatoes in the cooked meals supplied under various government programmes. The use of potatoes in the midday-meal scheme for school students, covering 1.6 million pupils, would be encouraged following this fiat, a senior Punjab government officer told IANS.
Even as a majority of the farmers in Punjab are staring at lower output of wheat and other crops due to the damage done by unseasonal rains, potato growers in Punjab are facing a problem of plenty.
Punjab has produced about 2.26 million tonnes of potatoes in the current season. With a good potato crop in other parts of the country, Punjab farmers are facing the pinch.
Punjab's Doaba belt, the fertile land between the Sutlej and Beas rivers, has had a bumper potato crop this year. With other states in the country too seeing a good output, potato growers in Punjab are facing a glut.
This has led to the biggest ever crash in wholesale potato prices in the region.
From nearly Rs.1,000 a quintal last year, the wholesale price of potato this time in Punjab is around Rs.200 per quintal. The rate of potato seed has also dropped by 50-60 percent.
Taking stock of the situation faced by potato growers, the Punjab government has directed its agencies, Markfed and Punjab Mandi Board, to take steps to assist farmers in marketing their bumper crop.
Badal has asked Markfed to procure potatoes from farmers and help them to supply these to other states. Exports to nearby countries are also being explored.
"Freight subsidy of Rs.200 per quintal would be paid through Markfed for export of potatoes to other countries and Rs.50 per quintal for selling and sending potatoes to other states," Badal has announced.
The government has also agreed to slash the market fee and rural development fee from two percent to 0.25 percent till April 30 to facilitate potato buying from the state.
Farmers say they are in a bind. They cannot decide whether they should sell their potato produce at the crashed prices and suffer a loss or they should put the produce in cold storage and sell when prices stabilize.
"The potato stocks are piling up. Farmers are in a fix whether to sell now or later. Storing the produce would mean additional burden of rent for cold storage. There is no guarantee that the potato prices will stabilize in the near future," Baljit Singh, a farmer near Nakodar town, told IANS.
Even cold storage owners are wary of storing potatoes.
"In the past, we had a situation where farmers did not return to pick up their potato stocks as the prices remained low and they had already suffered losses. Our (storage) space gets blocked in such a scenario and we suffer a loss," said Parminder Singh, a cold storage owner near the town of Phagwara.
Potato growers have in the past strewn their produce on the roads to express their disgust against the government's failure to bail them out when earlier bumper crops led to similar situations.