Former US President Ronald Reagan once said the government does not solve problems,it subsidises them. This more or less sums up the state governments response to the recent vegetable price crisis that plagued Mumbai and other parts of the state.
An annual cyclical increase in the prices of vegetables due to disruption of supplies after the advent of monsoon got compounded this year after traders and retailers decided to hike prices to make the most of the shortfall. The result: vegetable prices in the city zoomed by 33 per cent to 200 per cent.
With Lok Sabha and state polls due in a year,the governments response was not entirely unexpected. It announced setting up 100 fair price shops to ensure supply of vegetables at affordable prices.
Agriculture experts,however,claim it will just treat the symptom rather than the disease.
The opening of these shops will only provide temporary relief,that too only to a part of the population. Policy decisions to address farmers concerns that will ensure that big price fluctuations do not occur are still to be taken, said Milind Murugkar,a food and agricultural policy expert.
Though Maharashtra has been a leading state in horticulture production since its inception,its vegetable production capacity has dropped drastically in the last decade.
In 2001-02,the states share was 8.02 per cent (4.02 lakh hectares) of the total land under vegetable cultivation in the country. Its share in total vegetable production was 7.26 per cent (51.28 lakh metric tonnes) during that period.
The figures for 2012-13 released by the National Horticulture Board,however,paint a grim picture. Maharashtra share in vegetable cultivation has now fallen to 5.25 per cent (4.77 lakh hectares). Its share in vegetable production has also dipped substantially to 5.22 per cent (81.79 lakh metric tonnes).
Compare this with neighboring Gujarat. In 2001-02,Gujarats share in vegetable cultivation was only 4.62 per cent (2.32 lakh hectares) of the total land under vegetable cultivation in the country. By 2012-13,it increased to 5.92 per cent (5.38 lakh hectares). In 2001-02,Gujarat accounted for just 4.64 per cent (32.78 lakh metric tonnes) of the countrys total vegetable production. The figure has now shot to nearly 105.37 lakh metric tonnes of vegetables.
In the last 12 years,the area under vegetable cultivation has grown 81 per cent in the country. In Maharashtra,it has grown by only 18 per cent. In Gujarat,the same grew by 131 per cent.
In the same period,the total vegetable production in India has grown by 121 per cent. In Maharashtra,it has grown by only by 59 per cent,compared to Gujarat which has grown by 221 per cent.
Farmers claim many of them are weaning themselves away from the cultivation of vegetables to more lucrative produces like sugarcane and onions and to produces where they are assured of a minimum support price by the government.
Policy shortcomings and the growing urbanisation of the state has also meant the cultivation areas of vegetables are shrinking. A decade or so back,a substantial chunk of vegetables in Mumbai would come from areas in Thane and Vasai-Virar. However,rapid urbanisation of these areas has meant that many vegetable farmers have found it more profitable to sell their land to builders than to carry on with farming, Arjun Davkar,a trader from the Vashi Agriculture Produce Market Committee,said.
Another reason being touted is that there is virtually no support mechanism by the state for farmers who produce vegetables.
In India,the centre as well as states provide a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for produce ranging from food grains to sugarcane to ensure that farmers get appropriate remuneration for their produce. Interestingly,neighbouring states like Goa have started giving MSP on vegetables. There have been repeated demands from farmers that vegetables should also be granted Minimum Support Price. There have been instances in the past where farmers have had to dump their produce on the roads because they could not even recover the transportation cost of ferrying their goods to the market, head of the Marathwada chapter of the Shetkari Sanghatna,Kalidas Apet,said.
Agriculture watchers claim that even though MSP for vegetables helps increase cultivation,the government does not have the funds to set up a system which will be helpful to vegetable growers. MSP no doubt helps,but it also means the state will need to set up large warehousing facilities to help store and treat these products. At this point of time,it does not have the funds to do that. What can be more easily done is the improvement in the functioning of APMCs,which still leaves a lot to be desired, Madan Sabnavis,chairman of CARE Ratings,said.
The Agriculture Market Produce Committee was set up through an Act in 1963 to regulate the wholesale distribution of agriculture produce in their area. The aim was to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their products.
In reality,many farmers claim that in the past 50 years,APMCs have turned into cartels controlled by traders. The APMCs,which see a turnover of thousands of crores of rupees,have also become highly politicised. Activists claim traders fund political parties activist,which then turns a blind eye to the functioning of the APMC. Most of the policies of the state are ensured at helping traders. Even in the case of 100 fair price shops that the state wants to open,it is actually buying from traders and selling them. It is not buying produce directly from farmers. How is the farmer benefitting from the entire exercise? Apet said.
Activists in the agricultural sector claim that the biggest hindrance to the growth of farmers has been the drafting of APMC rules which do not allow a farmer to sell his produce directly to the market. The state government has been hesitant in addressing the problems of the farmers. A farmer should have the right of selling his produce to whom he wants and where he wants. If this is allowed to happen,the market will be able to strike equilibrium in which both the buyer and the consumer will benefit, agricultural expert Giridhar Patil said.
Meanwhile,Agriculture Minister Radha Krishna Vikhe Patil acknowledged the problems of vegetable farmers,while claiming that the remedial measures needed to be taken were actually work in progress.