The trucks and tractors full of onions that start arriving from 9 in the morning are parked with their backs facing each other, leaving room in the middle for the late arrivals.
It’s around 3.30 pm and the action begins at Lasalgaon market in Maharashtra, the country’s largest onion market. Farmers fling open the trunks of their vehicles to allow the onions to drop, like a waterfall, on a mat on the ground.
The traders walk from one vehicle to other, throwing numbers at each other: 430, 720, 790… The farmers are simply handed a slip at the end of the barely minute-long bidding, informing them of the price of their produce. There is no negotiation.
Between 20,000 to 35,000 tonnes of onions are traded at the market daily. Farmers, however, complain that they have no say in it.
Nivriti Bhaskar Tidke, 32, who has come from Dhanori village says that while the cost of manure and other inputs has gone up, “the price of our produce hasn’t risen”. “We have suffered severe losses,” he says.
Like Tidke, several farmers are unhappy with the prices, with most talking about the high cultivation and transportation costs.
“Khaane ke vaande pad gaye hain, peene ko paani nahi hai (We barely have enough to eat, there is no water to drink),” says Tidke, angrily.
The farmers at the market earn between Rs 425 per quintal (Rs 4.25 per kg) to Rs 870 per quintal (Rs 8.70 per kg), but they say they need at least Rs 1,000 per quintal to make any kind of profit. Farmers invest nearly Rs 50,000 per acre for the cultivation over three months.
Amidst this anger over low prices, any talk of elections usually ends in farmers directing their ire at government policies — both of the state and the Centre. While most farmers claim to have voted for the BJP or PM Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election, they say they will be forced to reconsider this time.
Click here for more election news
“We hoped Modi would do something for us, but this time we are considering (Sharad) Pawar (NCP chief and Congress ally). Pawar knows the problems of the farmers. Modi only works for traders and people in cities,” says Yogesh Sonone, a farmer from Ahmednagar.
Lasalgaon falls under the Dindori Lok Sabha constituency where the NCP’s Dhanraj Mahale, formerly with the Sena, will take on the BJP’s Bharti Pawar, who was formerly with the NCP. The BJP dropped sitting MP Harishchandra Chavan. The constituency votes on April 29.
“None of the schemes announced by the government for the farmers have reached them,” says Kamla Krishan Shinde, 50, from Khadak Malegaon. A few farmers, however, say that they have received the first installment of the Rs 6,000 annual payment under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) scheme announced during the interim Budget earlier this year.
But as the conversation drifts to Pakistan and the aerial strikes in Balakot, their support for the Prime Minister is evident. “Uttar achha dete hain Pakistan ko (He has given a fitting response to Pakistan),” says Babasaheb Shivaji Phumbre, a 31-year-old farmer.
Phumbre has a four-acre farm and has got Rs 870 per quintal for his onions today. “I have 500 quintals to sell. The rate today could be because of the elections,” he says.
But soon, it’s back to the airstrikes, and Vikram Kanade, who is angry about the prices, joins in: “It’s the Army that conducts the operations. It was not created in the last five years.”
Khanderao Lakshman Nagre, promptly counters him, drawing a comparison with the previous UPA government “that did nothing after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai”. Shakir Gulab Sheikh agrees. “Modi acts promptly compared to even the other leaders of his own party,” he says.
Five kilometres away, at Vinchur market, Popad Maski says Modi is a “deshbhakt (a patriot)”, an “achha manoos (a good man).” “The Congress did nothing for 55 years,” he says.
Back in Lasalgaon, many of the younger farmers say they have tried to move out of the profession, but failed. Tipali Abhijeet, 21, says he could not complete his mechanical engineering degree because he didn’t have enough money. “Our family grows onions but we continue to make losses. I did not have the Rs 50,000 that was needed to study further… What can we do, we don’t even earn enough to eat,” he says.