The lockdown and consequent labour shortage has hit the mandi trade of fruits and vegetables, leading to accumulation of these perishables at the farmers’ end.
By Prabhudatta Mishra
The lockdown and consequent labour shortage has hit the mandi trade of fruits and vegetables, leading to accumulation of these perishables at the farmers’ end. A solace for growers of fruits and vegetables is that mandi prices of onion and potato have been ruling at remunerative levels for them since the lockdown began.
However, if the lockdown extends, farmers might suffer huge losses, market watchers said. Data across mandis (excluding in Maharashtra) show only 4.67 lakh tonne of onion crop arrived during March, against 12.11 lakh tonne in the year-ago period. Similarly, arrivals of potato and tomato in March were 6.55 lakh tonne and 1.7 lakh tonne, respectively, against 12.34 lakh tonne and 2.11 lakh tonne, in the same month last year.
Prices of vegetables like potato and cauliflower which can stay fresh for a few days without cold storage have been ruling higher from year-ago levels, while those of highly perishables like tomato are subdued.
Among the three key staple vegetables, average mandi prices of onion in Alwar, Rajasthan, a major producing hub in north, jumped nearly 3.5 times to Rs 1,967/quintal during the second fortnight of March, from Rs 570/quintal a year ago.
Average prices of potato in Agra, UP, were more than double at `1,328/quintal during March 15-31, against Rs 602/quintal a year ago. Cauliflowers in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, was 83% higher at Rs 1,292/quintal y-o-y from Rs 707/quintal.
On the other hand, there has been a significant drop in prices of tomato as its average mandi rates in Kolar, Karnataka, were down by 56% to Rs 569/quintal during March 15-31, against Rs 1,295/quintal in the year-ago period. Ladies finger was down by 36% at Rs 1,453/quintal from Rs 2,275/quintal in Karnataka’s mandis.
Traders in Delhi, however, said prices of fruits and vegetables vary from state to state as per demand, and cited the official rates at the Azadpur mandi to claim that the current rates of most vegetables are 40-60% lower than the year-ago period. On Tuesday, average price of cauliflower was Rs 725/quintal, ladies finger Rs 3,050/quintal, brinjal Rs 1,300/quintal and cabbage Rs 500/quintal at Azadpur, these traders said.
Brij Nandan, a farmer from Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh growing fruits and vegetables in Noida for the last five years, said he is hit badly by the lockdown. “ Everyday, we are returning from the mandi with the half-sold cart as there is no demand. Earlier, we had the option to move from one village to another,” said Nandan.
Aware of the hardships faced by farmers like Nandan, the Centre is discussing with states to ensure supplies of fruits and vegetables reach at retail levels to boost demand in mandis, so that farmers can access the markets to sell their produce without any hindrance. With hotels and restaurants being closed and many of the food processors running their plants at lower capacity, the government is considering if mobile vans could be pressed into service for selling fruits and vegetables.
“We are working on both ends as farm gate price is also dependent on functioning of the entire supply chain, particularly the offtake from mandis by retailers. Since several factors are responsible to ensure that the entire system works, we have been working closely with the states and removing every bottlenecks,” an agriculture ministry official said.
Drinking water secretary Parameswaran Iyer, who is heading the group on facilitating supply chain and logistics management for availability of essential commodities, took a briefing from all ministries concerned on the first day itself after it was formed, and has been holding meeting daily, sources said. The primary focus of the committee is on food and medicines, sources said. He has directed officials to find out demand and reach out to those places.
As many as 1,600 mandis selling fruits and vegetables are operational now, but several of those mandis had reported subdued demand for further offtake. For instance, about 30 truckloads of fruits and vegetables could not be sold in Vashi last Saturday and the state mandi board officials shifted them to Mumbai.
Most of the mandis in Maharashtra face labour shortage as migrant workers have returned to their villages while those still there are not turning up for works. Traders in Delhi’s Azadpur mandi said some migrant workers have gone to their villages, but overall there is not much impact on their business due to this as the demand is lower. Things are though improving from a week earlier, the real challenge is how to increase demand, traders said.
“Everyone is scared. People are not coming out to buy fruits and vegetables while hotels and restaurants are closed. In some places, retailers have also closed their shops,” said Rajinder Sharma, former chairman of the agriculture produce market committee, Azadpur.
Only 25-30 truckloads (capacity of 15/25 tonne, each) of onion could be sold on Monday while on a normal day it could have been 60-70, he said. Besides the lockdown, people are not buying onion due to current Navratri festival. Onion is selling at `14-20 kg at Azadpur while retail prices are around `40/kg in NCR. Potato and tomato are also sold around `40/kg in retail markets.
According to Sudhir Panwar, president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, farmers are currently holding their vegetable crops as much as possible since there is labour shortage in villages. Those migrant workers who have returned to villages are not willing to work on the field while the farm workers have refused to come out of their homes on corona fear.
“It is very difficult to get farm worker even at villages as police is not allowing at local levels. The situation has to be eased in next 7-10 days otherwise huge quantities of vegetables, which are not kept in cold stores, will rot,” Panwar said.
Subhash Deshwal, a retired colonel growing carrots in Sikandarabad of UP’s Bulandshahr district, said: “I used to send about 35 tonne to Delhi market before lockdown. But, currently able to send a third of that as there is huge drop in demand. Besides, drivers are not ready to transport as all dhabas and small restaurants are closed. I have arranged to put the unsold carrot at cold stores, but there is also a limit to the space there and unless market improves, it is difficult to sell these crops.”