Deesa, the potato bowl of Gujarat, has lost its most striking landmark — a giant sculpture of a potato, held up by two hands — to a belief that it was cursed.
Deesa’s ‘potato chowk’, or ‘bataka circle’ as it is popularly called in Gujarati, got its name from this giant sculpture at the entrance of the town in Banaskantha district, with the potato greeting visitors to ‘Gujarat ni bataka nagri (Gujarat’s potato city)’.
But one day, sometime last month, the replica was gone — falling victim to a growing belief among potato farmers, traders and cold storage owners in Banaskantha district that the sculpture had brought them ill-luck and that they had incurred losses, year after year, since it came up four years ago, in 2015. What’s now left of the replica is a platform on which the potato once stood.
Though the Deesa Cold Storage Association, which installed the sculpture in 2015, removed it ostensibly because it would have come in the way of a flyover on the national highway between Palanpur and Deesa, WhatsApp groups in the region have been aflutter with farmers excitedly sharing prices of “rising” potato prices since the sculpture was removed.
In March 2014, potato prices at the Deesa mandi averaged Rs 8.55 per kg, before climbing to Rs 16.99 by July. But in 2015 and in the following years, farmers had to bear huge losses as their produce fetched Rs 1-3 per kg against a production cost of Rs 5-6 per kg, a fall that was then attributed to a number of factors, including water scarcity and the 2016 demonetisation that is said to have affected the 2017 season of the crop. In 2017-18, too, prices hovered around the Rs 3-per-kg mark. Farmers and traders did their best to ride out the storm — including stocking their produce in cold storages, in the hope of selling it when prices picked up — but when nothing worked, they identified the scourge: the potato at the chowk.
Says Deesa Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) director Babubhai Desai, “This is their dharmik manyata (religious belief). Everyone — farmers and traders, both big and small, those not only from Deesa but the entire district — had started believing that after the statue was installed in 2015, (wholesale) prices of potato have been crashing. It came down to as low as Rs 1 per kg that year.”
Deesa Cold Storage Association president Ganpath Kachhava says the association had put up the around 15-foot-tall sculpture in 2014-15 at a cost of Rs 10 lakh. “We went with a design and model of the bataka (potato) statue to then chief minister Anandiben Patel,” says Kachhava, adding that it was removed because it was too tall for the flyover.
Deesa APMC secretary Amrutbhai Joshi, however, denies that the replica was brought down to accommodate the flyover. “It was not obstructing the flyover; it is simply about people’s beliefs. It is a fact that the prices were low as long as the replica was around and shot up after it was removed. For instance, the wholesale rate today is Rs 100-135 (per 20 kg); it was Rs 50-60 in 2018.”
Deesa BJP MLA Shashikant Pandya, who was among those the anguished farmers approached, says people were waiting for an opportunity to bring the potato replica down.
“Everybody believed the reason for the distress in the market was because of the potato sculpture. Farmers were very distressed over the last five years — potato prices dropped so much that people would not take it for free. Log bolne lage, nikalo, nikalo ise (People began to demand its removal). So the minute they learnt that a flyover was being built over the highway, somebody removed it overnight,” he says.
Pandya also insists that wholesale rates of potato have gone up since the sculpture was removed.
While farmers in Deesa and the larger Banaskantha district have been struggling with low wholesale prices since 2015, many resorted to stocking their produce in cold storages as they waited for the tide to turn. But that did little to help – at Rs 3 per kg per season, warehouse rentals are usually higher than the rates their produce would have fetched in the market, thus forcing farmers to either not lift the stock from the warehouses or sell their potatoes to cold storage owners at throwaway prices.
Of 450 cold storages in Gujarat, over 200, all privately owned, are in Banaskantha district alone. Of these, around 10 were forced to shut down late last year after running into losses.
Dineshbhai Mali, 40, a small farmer from Malgadh village in Deesa, is glad the potato is out of sight. Mali, who in 2018 reduced the sowing area on his 5-acre field to half, says, “We did not know who put it up and whom to approach for its removal. So we stayed quiet. But now that the bad omen has been removed, we have already started getting better prices for our produce.”