Santosh Gorde, a farmer from Takali Vinchur village in Nashik’s Niphad taluka, attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Pimpalgaon earlier this week. While he supports the PM’s tough stance on Pakistan-sponsored terror, Gorde might still turn away from the BJP on April 29.
“For the last two years, prices of tomatoes and onions have been intentionally kept low to benefit urban consumers. Our incomes have dipped even while the government kept promising to double our incomes,” he says.
If minimum support price for oilseeds and pulses and cane dues were the issues in the first three phases of polling in Maharashtra, the final phase on Monday will see large swathes of the state’s tomato and onion-growing belt going to polls.
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Stretching from Junnar in Pune to Dhule in north Maharashtra, a very large chunk of voters on April 29 will be tomato and onion farmers. The constituencies of Dindori, Nashik, Dhule, parts of Shirdi and Shirur, too, are among those where Modi’s personal charisma is up against farmers’ distress and anger.
In November-December 2018, Sanjay Balkrishna Sathe of Naitale village in Niphad, Nashik, sent Modi an online money order of Rs 1,064. That was his total earning from 750 kg of his best quality onions, sold at the best rate of Rs 1.51 per kg.
An avid follower of PM’s Mann Ki Baat, Sathe says it’s undeniable that there is an anti-BJP mood among onion-growers. “Even if the NCP candidate is a newcomer from the Shiv Sena, people still believe Sharad Pawar may be good for farmers’ prospects… But urbanised areas will vote differently.”
On an average, onions are grown on 4.5 lakh hectares with the state supplying more than 35 per cent of the country’s demand for the bulb. Pune, Nashik, Dhule and some portions of Marathwada form the state’s onion growing belt.
This year’s drought has brought down onion acreage to 3.5 lakh hectares, but this has not helped improve prices. Markets in Pimpalgaon and Lasalgaon, the country’s largest onion market, are currently reporting average prices of Rs 9-10 per kg, a sharp contrast from prices in January last year when prices hovered around Rs 30 per kg.
Onion growing areas have witnessed large farmers’ agitations, and soon after BJP’s rout in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the state government announced a Rs 150-crore subsidy scheme for onion growers. Another round of government procurement is underway too, but nothing has pushed up the prices.
“The government should just stop procurement,” says Vinod Khairnar. The onion farmer in Juni Bej village of Nashik’s Kalwan taluka was planning to buy a tractor last Diwali, but instead incurred losses as prices in Lasalgaon market hit Rs 700 a quintal, down from Rs 2,800-3,000 per quintal in January.
“Every time the prices rise, the government floods the markets with their stocks or with imports.” Vinod says the government policy should facilitate onion exports and competitive prices instead of pandering to the needs of urban voters. “Sharad Pawar was the only agriculture minister in history to say that farmers should be allowed to enjoy periods of good prices for onions even if it pinches city consumers,” he adds.
As the new rabi crop hits the markets, prices remain low and storage chawls built with government subsidy get stocked to the brim, and the cycle of hoping for better prices starts again.
In Nashik and Dindori, a section of onion farmers, especially those belonging to tribal communities or in areas where the CPI(M) has a strong presence, say they will vote for seven-term Left MLA Jiva Panda Gavit.
While their anger will hurt the BJP, an en bloc vote by onion farmers is also unlikely.
State president of Shetkari Sanghatana, Devidas Pawar, says even if 60 or 70 per cent of onion growers in the Nashik-Dindori-Niphad region vote in unison against the government, the same numbers in the urbanised and upper-middle class parts of the region will vote for BJP, whether for affordable onions or for muscular policy vis-a-vis Islamic terror or Pakistan.
“Even amid the current distress, farmers’ families have multiple identities. A poor farmer’s brother may be somewhat educated and working in the nearby town, and his electoral choices are dictated by different things, including by the sense of a safer and more secure India under a strong PM,” Devidas says.
Also angry are the state’s tomato farmers. Deepak Bhise, a farmer in Yedgaon village in Junnar, claims most farmers will pick the NCP. Deepak, who heads the tomato growers’ union of Junnar, said the NCP’s promise to ensure better prices for produce makes it an easy choice. Junnar falls under the Shirur constituency whose Shiv Sena MP Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil is seeking a fourth term. Pitted against Patil is actor Dr Amol Kolhe whose pitch includes better prices for agri commodities.
Throughout 2018, Junnar’s tomatoes traded at around Rs 6-7 per kg. Traders in Pimpalgaon market in Niphad also blame the stoppage of road trade to Pakistan for the low prices. Further, trade with Bangladesh has stopped due to high import duty imposed on Indian products.
Five dams in Junnar help farmers opt for the capital-heavy tomato as their winter or rabi crop. Junnar’s tomatoes feed the markets till August, after which kharif tomatoes from Nashik take over. This year, around 30,000 acres in Junnar has gone for the crop, but growers like Bhise are bracing for tough times.
“At present, the wholesale price is around Rs 10-12 per kg. Given the steep rise in fertiliser cost, the minimum price we should get is Rs 20. Anything less is a loss,” Deepak says. Like onion farmers, Deepak and others believe that the rise of the urban-centric BJP has queered the pitch for farmers.