Paltry relief to onion farmers
“ONIONS don’t just make the cook cry,” said Subhash
Wairkire, a young farmer from Nashik who had brought his produce to a farmers’ market in Mumbai.
The sarcasm in his voice was unmistakable. A bumper crop of onions this year had ensured a price slump. “What should have been a bonanza has actually beggared us,” he said, referring to the throwaway prices at which the produce is sold. Wairkire was only partly affected, but several onion farmers had lost an entire season’s potential earnings. “I am safe,” he explained, “because I also cultivate broccoli, asparagus and other ‘city vegetables.’” (City vegetables is because these are cultivated for and brought specifically to weekly markets in Mumbai.)
The onion price slump since November has made the disappointed farmers send their earnings to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One farmer from Nashik district reportedly donated Rs.1,064—the amount he had earned from selling 750 kg of onions at about Rs.1 per kg—to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Another farmer from Ahmednagar district sent Rs.6 to Fadnavis. He had sold his stock of 2,657 kg at Rs.1 a kg. The Rs.6 was what was left over after paying market, labour and transport expenses. He had invested Rs.2 lakh to raise the onion crop.
On December 20, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-SHIV Sena government announced a Rs.150 crore relief package for onion farmers in Maharashtra. However, the scheme will be applicable to those farmers who sold their produce between November 1 and December 15. The total produce sold in this period amounted to 74.86 lakh tonnes. The government’s reasoning is that until November farmers had got Rs.850-1,500 a quintal for the summer harvest. By November, the fresh crop had arrived but the summer bounty was still available in the market and so there was a glut, leading to a crash in prices. Farmers now earned only Rs.250-rs.300 a quintal for the summer crop. Prices for the freshly harvested crop, too, took a beating and it sold at about Rs.750-rs.850 a quintal.
The Fadnavis government declared an ex gratia grant of Rs.200 a quintal, with a ceiling of 200 quintals per farmer, which meant that each eligible farmer would get about Rs.40,000. But because of the stipulated time frame of November 1 to December 15, not all of the 10 lakh onion farmers in the State will be eligible for the grant. About 75 lakh quintals were sold in the above period. Agriculture officials estimate that about two lakh farmers are expected to benefit from the relief package. It is not clear if the Rs.6 that was sent to Fadnavis prompted the relief package though it seems unlikely, considering that there was little response from the State government to the travails of farmers. It would not be too far off the mark to say that Fadnavis was encouraged to announce the relief package because of the BJP’S defeat in the
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.
The Nationalist Congress Party, which has a large rural voter base, has said that the State government’s offer had “made a mockery of farmers”. The government retaliated by saying that the ex gratia is more than the 2016 grant of Rs.100 a quintal, with a ceiling of 200 quintals a farmer. “Farmers will always store a crop if there is excess. They can sell later or use it for home consumption. This practice should translate into a profit for them. Instead it is working to their disadvantage,” said a cooperative and marketing department official. He added, “This is why Raj Thackeray’s tactics find approval.” The reference is to the suggestion of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena chief that farmers hurl onions at politicians
The Centre has stepped in and extended export subsidy to onions until January 2019. Officials in the cooperative and marketing department said that if cold storage facilities were improved, the overall outlook would be better for farmers.
NATIONALIST CONGRESS PARTY workers distribute onions for free in Solapur on December 8 during a protest over their low price.