Spiralling price of onions last year prompted Madhya Pradesh farmers to grow the crop in a big way. The result is a glut that made the vegetable dirt-cheap this monsoon.
In Ratlam mandi, the price dipped to 20 paise a kg four months ago. Frustrated farmers abandoned onions, which were left to rot in quintals on roadsides. Identical onion rate were prevalent in the Neemuch market in mid-April. The state government stepped in, well aware of the role onions can play in politics as much as with the economy. Soaring onion price was a major factor behind the BJP’s debacles in the 1998 assembly elections in Delhi, Raj as than and Madhya Pradesh when the party-led NDA ruled the Centre.
A cautious chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced in early June the procurement of onions at Rs 6 a kg from farmers—many of whom were selling the crop below Rs 1 per kg. Never has the 1956-formed state bought a vegetable, authorities claim.
The Madhya Pradesh State Cooperative Marketing Federation (MarkFed) purchased 10.40 lakh quintals of onions from farmers. Already loan-burdened, their woes continued. From remote areas, farmers transported onions to mandis, only to be rejected for “poor quality”. The state intervened again, and ordered all mandis to buy onions. But it was late.
Kallu Kurmi of Newada village in Rehli tehsil of Sagar district has half his onions rotting. “Sagar mandi (50 km away) didn’t take my produce,” he says. “I’m left with 300 gunny bags of onions.”
This, despite Union minister for food Ram Vilas Paswan announcing in May the purchase of 15,000 tonnes of the bumper crop. MarkFed bought onions at Rs 6/kg. “We did it till end-June, by when rains came and made storing difficult,” says its managing director BM Sharma.
Former state agriculture director GS Kaushal attributes the farmers’ plight to administrative shortsightedness .“The government should have built storage facilities ,” he notes .“They aren’t expensive for onions.” In the end, traders, middlemen and corporate houses gain, points out Kaushal. “The farmers sells onions cheap, the consumer buys it at high prices.”
OUT OF TUNE?
Kausal notes that Maharashtra is the lone state that has worked upon providing storage facility to onion farmers. “If Madhya Pradesh could spend more than Rs 60 crore on the purchase of this crop from the farmers, why can’t it spend some amount on space to store onions?” he asks. Not working in this direction, the expert says, only helps in to create a perpetual situation where farmers get less and consumers pay more—much to the benefit of the links in between.
Madhya Pradesh has not emulated a nearby state, where hoarding of onions beyond a stipulated limit is banned and punishable. The‘ Te lang ana Onion Dealers (Licensing, Storage and Regulation) Order, 2016, warrants license to sell the crop and a minimum retail price for it.
In July last year, the central government extended its ban on stockpiling beyond the stipulated amount to curb prices of onion. ICAR 2014-15 data ranks Madhya Pradesh as the third-largest oniongrowing state—after Maharashtra and Karnataka. The central Indian state produced 28,42,000 tonnes of onion in 1,17,000 hectares of land.
The Opposition Congress says the onion fiasco has exposed the government’ s failure in making agriculture profitable.
Deepti Singh, the party’s state spokesperson, said the Chouhan government failed to notice the need for stronger onion storage facilities despite knowing that the farmers had gone to sow the seeds in large scale .“The laxity turned out to be nightmarish for the common people ,” she added.
The party’s MLAs walked out of the state assembly recently, flaying the government for selling onion at Rs 4 per kg when the market price was Rs 10.
Party legislator Jaivardhan Singh alleged the government was not paying the farmers money for the onion sit purchased. “You bought onion worth Rs 62 crore from 40,000 farmers, but paid them only Rs 23.95 crore,” he told treasury benches.
Minister of state for cooperatives Vishwas Sarang said the government sold 7,000 quintals of onions in two days. “We floated tenders to sell onions, but got quotes as low as 60 paisa to Rs 3.16 per kg. That is why we sold onions at Rs 4/kg,” he reasoned. “The balance amount will reach farmers in a week or so.”
TOUGH TO DISPOSE
Recently, the government asked the district collectors, jail administration and departments running government hostels to buy onions. Some collectors ordered employees to purchase at least 50 kg of onion per head. MarkFed is to sell onions at fair-price shops across the state. “There will be open auction, too. As of now, 7000-8000 quintals of onion is being disposed of daily,” says Sharma. If onions have brought tears in the eyes of the farmer, the government is equally worried—though for a different reason. For instance, not long ago, the Chouhan government faced allegations from the Delhi government over rise in the prices of this bulbous vegetable so essential to the cuisine of people of all classes.
That was in 2013, when Haroon Yusuf, who was food and civil supplies minister in the Sheila Di ks hit cabinet, attributed the soaring onion rates in the national capital to deliberate hoarding by Madhya Pradesh. The minister went on to claim that it was done at the instance of the Delhi unit of the BJP for political gains ahead of assembly elections. The MP government rubbished the charge, calling it baseless.