Assam’s hot potato

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Workers cleaning potato fields in Bamundi village in Barpeta district. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Harvested potatoes left to rot on the village roads in Mandia.

Rising costs and price collapse force the State’s farmers into distress selling.

The cascading effect of demonetisation coupled with a lack of market support has forced potato growers of Assam to resort to distress sale of their produce even as consumers in the capital city of Guwahati have to cough up Rs.20 a kilogram for the vegetable.

Last year, potato growers of Gingia in Biswanath Chariali subdivision in northern Assam’s Sonitpur district were forced to dump their produce on the streets as prices collapsed following demonetisation, which resulted in shortage of currencies of smaller denominations. Potato growers were forced to sell at Rs.1 a kg and huge stocks in cold storage remained unsold.

This year, potato growers of Mandia in lower Assam’s Barpeta district, most of them landless peasants, have been forced to resort to distress sale of their produce at Rs.2 to 3 a kg. Residents of Mandia allege that heaps of harvested potatoes are rotting along the village roads.

About 10 kilometres off the district headquarters town of Barpeta, Mandia is the largest hub of potato farming in the State.

The Agriculture Department has attributed the dip in potato prices to bumper yield following the introduction of two new varieties, Kufri Pukhraj and Kufri Khyati.

“The yields of these two varieties were found to be much more than the traditionally used varieties. In formal crop-cutting experiments conducted in Marigaon district, the yield was estimated at 23,700 kg a hectare, much more than the estimated 16,000 kg a ha recommended in the Assam Agricultural University’s package of practices. The new varieties became popular among the farmers because of their higher yield,” states a report of the Department of Horticulture.

Official statistics tabled on the floor of the Assembly show that the State requires about 40 lakh tonnes of potato every year. However, the production of potato for 2013-14 and 2014-15 stood at 11 lakh tonnes and 17 lakh tonnes respectively. The State procures 20 to 25 lakh tonnes from other States to meet its requirements.

Procurement policy

Tafizuddin Ahmed, a member of the State council of the Assam State Kisan Sabha (ASKS) affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha, however, punched holes in the procurement policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State.

He said: “Farmers are dependent on potato seeds brought from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, which involve transportation cost. Illegal syndicates operating en route also increase seed procurement cost. Besides, most farmers are landless and they have to take land on lease for growing potato. The cost of cultivation is rising due to non-availability of fertilizer subsidies. Potato growers have to buy fertilizers at market prices from private suppliers. These suppliers often supply poor quality fertilizers that harm the plants. On the other hand, the price of medicine required to treat blight in potato has been soaring every year at 20 to 30 per cent. All these have increased the cost of potato cultivation. Ironically, there are no buyers for potatoes from these growers at remunerative prices. There is no cold storage for farmers to preserve their produce. Landowners mount pressure on potato growers to harvest potato and clear the land for paddy cultivation. The farmers are left with no option but to harvest potato even though buyers pay just Rs.2 or 3 a kg while the cultivation cost is Rs.9 a kg. So, they incur loss of Rs.6 to 7 a kg and have to pay the land owners the lease amount and repay the loan taken to purchase fertilizers, pesticides and medicines.”

He said the ASKS had been mobilising farmers and demanding that the government procure the produce so that the growers need not go for distress selling.

Tafizuddin said when the government announced its decision to spend Rs.1 crore to procure potato at Rs.5 a kg from the growers, the farmers demanded that the Assam State Agricultural Marketing Board (ASAMB) meet the cost of the bag (50 kg each) and its transportation from the field to the main road so that the farmers’ burden is reduced.

Data on the ASAMB website show that it purchased 10,940.25 quintals from Gingia and 6,083.30 quintals from Mandia with Rs.1 crore received from the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs department.

Sharing his bitter experiences, Kamal Hassan, a potato grower of Bordoloni village in Mandia, said his family had grown potato on 90 bigha (1 bigha equals 7.5 hectares) taken on lease. Erosion caused by the Brahmaputra forced the family to shift from Gorola village in Baghbor area to Mandia about 28 years ago. An Arts graduate, Kamal said they could not sell potato grown on 20 bigha, while the potato grown on the remaining 70 bigha was sold for more than Rs.6 a kg.

“Potato is cultivated on more than 50,000 bigha of land in Mandia. The yield per bigha this year was 30 quintals. This works out to a total production of 15 lakh quintals in greater Mandia area this year. Against this total production, the government’s procurement was a meagre 5,000 quintals. On the other hand, the farmers stocked potatoes and did not sell the crop to private potato traders hoping that the government procurement at the rate of Rs.5 a kg will fetch them at least Rs.2 to 3 a kg more. However, after the government procurement stopped at just 5,000 quintals, a huge quantity of potatoes remained unsold and rotted,” he added. The farmer said that apart from the ASKS, other organisations such as Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Assam Mandia Krishak Mahasabha had been raising the issues of the affected potato growers.

Elaborating on the crisis facing the potato growers, Kamal pointed out that the production cost of potato for each bigha was around Rs.28,500, which included Rs.2,600 for ploughing, Rs.4,500 for fertilizers, Rs.4,500 for purchasing five bags of seeds (1,500 per bag), Rs.1,000 for planting the seeds, Rs.2,000 for buying vitamins, Rs.1,000 for pesticides, Rs.2,000 for disease-resistant medicines, Rs.3,000 for harvesting and Rs.8,000 for payment of lease amount to landowners. Against the total production cost of Rs.28,500 for each bigha, the Mandia potato growers earned only Rs.6,000 to Rs.9,000 a bigha. He said though the government fixed the procurement price at Rs.5 a kg, the farmers actually got Rs.4 as they had to spend Re.1 in purchasing the bag, packaging, loading and transporting the produce to the procurement centre.

Making matters worse for the farmers, the per bigha yield of a popular government certified paddy variety (No. 837) grown on the same plots after potato is harvested was only three to five maunds (one maund equals 37 kg) this year against the normal production of 30 to 40 maunds. However, the government seems to be least bothered, Tafizuddin and Kamal feel.