The humble potato or aloo —whether it’s made into the exotic Kashmiri dum aloo or used to prepare the plainer baingan aloo — is an essential part of our dinner tables.
At Rs 22-24 per kg, the retail price of potatoes has more than tripled in six months, and is pinching middle-class pockets.
And yet, the price rise has brought little cheer to the potato cultivator.
West Bengal, the second largest potato producing state in India after Uttar Pradesh, had a disastrous crop this year. The state harvested a total produce of 5.8 million tonne this year, 23 per cent lower than the state's 10-year average of 7.5 million tonne.
About 390,000 hectares are under potato production in the state, most of it in the southern districts of Hooghly and Bardhaman.
A bad year for the crop and lack of access to modern storage facilities are working against potato farmers.
Small farmers with limited finances are the worst affected.
Hari Koley, a 55-year old marginal farmer from Singur in Hooghly, about 55 km north of Kolkata, planted potato on his seven cottah (5,040 sq ft) plot late last year.
Koley noticed that the output was less than in previous years.
In February-March, Koley suspected that the crop would suffer this year and lead to a rise in prices. “Everybody was complaining of poor crop due to blight (a common disease that affects potato crops), and the expectation of a price rise got stronger,” he said.
He had to sell the entire produce at the beginning of the season — February and March — because he couldn’t afford to hire cold storage facilities.
Koley also had to return the loan to his moneylender by March 31. “If I failed, the 7.2 per cent monthly interest rate would have finished me,” he said.
Koley, who has a family of five, says he managed a profit — of Rs 500. “Thank God, I suffered no loss,” he said.
Farmers who can afford cold storage are able to hold on to their produce and sell them later when the prices are higher.
Kalyan Barui (48), a resident of Tarakeswar, 20 km from Singur, cultivated potato on 20 bighas (6.6 acres) for this year. He sold only half his produce at the beginning of the season at Rs 250-300 per packet and kept 400 packets in cold storage "so that they could be sold later when the price rose", he said.
Smaller farmers have also been singed by the rise in input costs.
“The prices of all inputs — seeds, pesticides, irrigation, fertiliser, electricity, labour charge — have gone up,” said Becharam Manna, vice-chairman of the Singur Panchayat Samiti. Manna said a 50-kg packet of a particular fertiliser produced by a famous brand cost Rs 374.24, but farmers were forced to buy it at Rs 525 from the black market.
“Farmers cannot profit until the government intervenes to reduce the production cost,” said Barui. “The state government announced a (relief) package in the middle of the season but they benefit only the middlemen and the cold storage owners because they pick up all the produced crop at the very beginning of season.”
Farmers are dependent on agricultural cooperatives for loans and procurement of seeds, fertiliser and pesticides at the market rates, said Bhagirath Maity (45), secretary of Singur's Anandanagar Agricultural Development Cooperative, which has about 1,400 members. But he admitted, “We are not strong enough to maintain the supply according to the demand.”
Black marketers step in to fill this vacuum.
If poor potato farmers don’t have access to input materials at reasonable rates and state-of-the-art storage facilities, they will continue to be at the mercy of black marketers and moneylenders.