Why over-production has triggered widespread protests among India’s onion farmers
Onions have made and marred political careers in this country. In 1998, high prices of the pungent condiment had left Delhi’s homemakers – and the city-state’s BJP government – in tears. Two decades later, the bulbous vegetable is back at the center of a multi-layered farmers’ agitation – against rock bottom prices of the commodity.
The protests began at a nondescript village, Puntamba, in Maharashtra’s onion belt. There was no leader, no visible roadmap to take the protests beyond the bailiwick of the nearby mandis. But the voice of the protesting farmers at Puntamba appears to have resonated with their peers in Maharshtra and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, much to the discomfort of the respective governments.
“The call for strike at the Puntamba village provided farmers the platform to give vent to their accumulated frustration,” says veteran farm analyst and expert on agricultural markets, Dr Girdhar Patil.
Record onion prices in 2014-15 had made the commodity the most preferred crop among farmers in the country. The lure of good returns, coupled with perfect weather conditions, boosted yields to a record. The bumper crop has had its pitfalls. Since February 2016, onion prices have been ruling between Rs 3/kg and Rs 7/kg. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, meanwhile, onion production increased six-fold between 2005-06 and 2015-16 – all on expectations of blockbuster returns.
THE SEEDS OF DISCONTENT
The problem of plenty has dogged Dananjay Dhorde Patil. A farmer restless over the onion crisis, Dananjay Dhorde Patil was visiting various mandis in Maharashtra’s onion belt to convince farmers not to bring the crop to the markets: His aim was to ensure farmers got value for their toil. With Dananjay Dhorde Patil failing in this mission, the idea of going on strike was floated in the gram sabha of Ahmednagar’s Puntamba village.
The social media played a role in building local public opinion. Then began the media coverage, which helped spread the idea among farmers across the onion belt. The demands were not well studied. But limiting the supplies of milk and vegetables to cities was at the vanguard of the protests, and the strategy caused panic in Mumbai and Pune on June 1 and 2, the first two days of the strike, until it was abruptly called off by a faction after doubtful midnight talks with the government. However, young educated farmers at the forefront of the movement have regrouped, and the strike continues.
Electoral politics also entered the equation, with the social media telling farmers about the pre-election promises. In the MarathwadaBSE 4.81 % and Vidarbha regions, where pulses, cotton, and soya-beans are grown, social media posts have been telling farmers about the difference between the minimum prices now and what may have been politically pledged before the elections.
Farmers are seeking a blanket waiver of loans. However, the striking farmers, farm analysts and economists backing the protests know all too well that loan waivers wouldn’t solve the problem. However, it is a demand that appeals to all the farmers – and brings them together.
They seek the right to free trade and removal of government restrictions. Although the fall in commodity prices is largely due to over-production, government policies are equally responsible. In case of pulses, the government also encouraged farmers to increase the area under production.
However, despite forecasts of record production, the government allowed imports to continue, and did not remove the restriction on traders to buy as much as they want, and did not open up exports.
LOW INCOMES, FLUCTUATING PRICES
“The declining profitability is partially due to fluctuating world prices of agricultural commodities, and the efforts to keep the domestic prices low to protect consumers’ interest…This, coupled with the stagnating and declining yield levels, resulted in low income to the farmers,” MS Swaminathan, architect of India’s green revolution, wrote a decade ago in his report, the implementation of which is one of the key demands of the striking farmers. Government policies tend to appease the urban consumer and neglect the well-being of farmers, according to analysts. Besides, the APMCs – the mainstay of agricultural marketing in India – continue to be controlled by ‘sharks’ under political patronage, and they manipulate rates. “Traders provide funding to political leaders who get elected on administrative boards of APMCs,” claim the analysts.
Dr Girdhar Patil says no government has allowed market reforms. “In 2016, when Maharashtra government de-regulated APMCs and asked the middlemen (artiyas) to charge the cess to traders and not farmers, the traders at Lasalgaon APMC kept the market closed for 45 days. During this period, they sold all the onion they had stored. After the markets opened, new crops of onion came to the market and farmers who had stored onions and couldn’t sell due to the closure of the APMC had nowhere to go.
The Maharashtra government had proposed to set up two state-of-the-art Terminal Markets in Mumbai and Nagpur more than a decade ago. Despite tendering and re-tendering, the projects still remain on paper.
HARNESSING THE SOCIAL MEDIA
Young educated farmers have been using the social media to spread awareness about the strike, and their demands. Akash Chatake, who has been active on Facebook, told consumers through his posts that his fight is with the middlemen, the traders, and the government – not against city residents. The use of social media by farmers forced both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments to suspend Internet services in these areas – restrictions that farmers say are unwarranted.
The agitation has alarmed the state government, which was prompt to hold discussions with farmers. The strike also got several politically affiliated factions of farmers to come together on one platform, although critics believe this forced show of unity may not last long.
However, an MNC employee and a part of the think-tank of this movement says: “This agitation helped farmers realise their potential that the urban consumers cannot get their food if the farmer decides to not produce or sell.”
Source: ECONOMIC TIMES
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