When Than Singh opened his eyes early Wednesday, he found himself staring at an endless expanse of the blue sky. It’s a sight he hasn’t woken up to in a long while, not since the family got home a cooler a couple of years ago and he started sleeping indoors.
Last night, their tractor-trolley laden with chana (Bengal gram) had been their makeshift bed — his and his son Roop Singh’s. Keeping them company, in rows of vehicles parked in the mela grounds behind the government Krishi Upaj Mandi at Lateri in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, were other farmers who too had spent the night waiting for their turn to sell their produce at the mandi.
This year, there have been long queues at mandis and procurement centres across Madhya Pradesh following the government’s decision to buy wheat, gram, mustard and lentils directly from farmers. Two recent deaths of farmers – of a 38-year-old at Narsinghgarh in Rajgarh and of a 65-year-old in Vidisha – as they waited outside mandis for their turn to sell their produce, have turned the heat on the administration, with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan asking collectors to ensure there are no delays.
By 8 in the morning, the Singhs, who had travelled 18 km from their village Masoodi with two tractor-trolleys of chana, have already spent 16 hours outside the mandi. Roop had received an SMS eight days ago from the cooperative society with which they are registered, asking him to come to the mandi on Wednesday, but the father and son chose to come a day earlier. “We did not want to take any chance and miss out on this because we have been waiting for weeks to get called to the mandi,” says the senior farmer, who owns 35 bighas.
Their token number, a chit issued the day they reached, is 234 — there are 233 farmers ahead of them in the queue. No more than 40 trolleys can be weighed in a day, which means the duo will have to spend at least five days before their turn comes.
“A trip back home means wasting diesel and worrying if someone else will take your place. So it’s better to park ourselves here,” explains Roop, 26, a father of two and the eldest of Singh’s six children. Roop decides to make a round of the mandi through a short-cut — sneaking in through an opening in the wall near the mela ground, hoping to catch some action there. He returns disappointed. “There’s no one there now. And the ones who are there don’t seem to know anything,” he says.
Roop is visibly restless unlike his father who prepares for a leisurely bath at a nearby tubewell. “I have never found myself in such a situation,” says Roop, sitting in the driver’s seat of his trolley. These are indeed unusual times for farmers. Until last year, trading at the mandi would happen between noon and 4 pm, when farmers would come, post-lunch, with their produce, which would be auctioned in the presence of mandi officials. This year, after chana prices started crashing due to a bumper crop and less demand, the government decided to buy directly from farmers — at Rs 4,500 per quintal — for the Central pool. Selling to the government offers farmers better returns than selling to private traders, which explains the rush.
Spread over 3.59 hectares, with a warehouse and sheds occupying most of the premises, Lateri mandi is one of the smaller ones in the state and isn’t equipped to deal with the current rush. So mandi officials have been asking farmers to move their tractor-trolleys to the mela grounds in the rear. Now reclining on gunny bags filled with chana in the trolley of his tractor, an exasperated Roop says, “Tap rahe hain (We are getting scorched).” The tractor-trolley is parked in the middle of the ground, which is littered with plastic bags and food waste.
While the Singhs own their tractor-trolleys, many other farmers have hired vehicles to transport their produce to the mandi. “The rent for the first day is calculated according to the weight of the produce (anywhere between Rs 40 and Rs 80 per quintal of produce). From the second day onwards, we have to pay a daily rent for the trolley,” says Roop.
Other farmers join in to complain about the weather and the alleged mismanagement at the mandi. As tempers rise, Singh quietly moves away and prepares to take a nap at the driver’s seat, the small plastic canopy shielding him from the sun.
The farmers wonder if a dharma-kanta (a weighbridge) would have eased their woes unlike the existing practice of unloading the produce on the floor of the mandi, packing it in bags, weighing each of them and sealing them, the entire process taking nearly 80 minutes for 40 quintals. As the noon sun shines bright, the senior farmer decides to move under the trolley.
The son, in turn, walk downs to the market to a cooperative bank to withdraw some money. Out of sheer boredom, other farmers join him. A few minutes later, Roop returns empty-handed — “I couldn’t even get inside the bank… it’s so crowded,” he says, slumping onto the tarpaulin sheet spread out on the ground near their tractor. Around 2 pm, the father and son sit down for a meal of roti, bhate ki subji and pickle, brought by an acquaintance from their village. Roop says, “The longer we stay here, the more we spend on tea and breakfast. Back in villages, who buys tea? It’s unthinkable.”
The hours drag on. Still waiting, Roop decides to make another visit to the bank to check if he can withdraw money.
The senior farmer has now moved to a spot behind the tractor, where the setting sun has cast a long shadow. He pulls out his phone, a basic Intex model, from within the folds of his dhoti and talks loudly to someone in his village. As the long conversation ends abruptly, Singh looks puzzled and puts away his handset.
The son returns half an hour later. His bank visit, like his four trips to the mandi since 8 am, has been fruitless again. But Roop does not seem to mind the walk. “I will go again early tomorrow. Yahin baithna hai, yahin sona hai (We have to be here anyway). There is little else to do,’’ he says.
PS: Six days after they arrived at the mandi, the Singhs managed to sell chana from one of their trolleys. But they were told the chana in the second trolley had impurities. They will now get it cleaned and come back.