Fruit for thought! Lockdown has forced farmers into shock sales — and debt

By: |
May 06, 2020 5:05 AM

Everyone in the banana supply chain seems to be gaining from the lockdown, except growers.

The country’s banana landscape is carpeted with examples of lives upended by the sudden enforcement of a lockdown that has forced farmers into shock sales—and debt. (Representative image)

Avinash Nathu Patil, 37, counts himself lucky. A resident of Shingadi village in Jagaon’s Raver taluka, he has been growing bananas since 2008. With high-yielding tissue cultured saplings from Jain Irrigation, nurtured with water-soluble nutrients supplied with precision through drip irrigation pipes, he has built a profitable business. Last year, late rains compelled him to plant late. His fruit bunches, which are normally plucked in April, will be harvested in late May.

In Nichaul village, ~5 km from the UP-Nepal border, Gautam Poddar, 74, has been fortunate, too. Unlike Grand Naine bananas, which mature in 10 months in peninsular India, his is a 14-month crop due to four months of winter dormancy. Poddar has his 60-acre fruit garden picked in August.

Except for few cases like these, the country’s banana landscape is carpeted with examples of lives upended by the sudden enforcement of a lockdown that has forced farmers into shock sales—and debt. In the areas that supply to North Indian markets, there is seething anger against wholesalers. In videos on social media and in a stream of reports in dailies from Jalgaon, the district producing more than 70% of Maharashtra’s banana crop, they are accused of raking in unconscionable profits when they should have shared their gains with growers.

Wholesalers say they are being maligned. High truck rentals, a spike in wages, increase in fixed costs due to lower utilisation of ripening chamber capacity, and enhanced wastage caused by erratic offtake on account of virus-related restrictions on hawking have squeezed their margins, they say. They admit that farmers have suffered and prices paid to them don’t cover the cost of production, but don’t accept blame for it.

Mahavir Subhash Ghogare, 33, of village Bavada in Pune district’s Indapur taluka, had made a deal to sell his banana harvest at Rs 14/kg on March 20, a day before the Janata curfew was announced. The trader sealed the deal with a deposit of Rs 5,000, but couldn’t pick the 2,100 fruit bunches, weighing 35 kg each on average (~75 tonnes), worth Rs 10 lakh, due to the lockdown restrictions on transport from March 25.

A graduate in agricultural science with an MBA in agri-business management, Ghogare says he contacted around 30 traders in Pune and tried selling through two farmers’ producer companies, but failed. He distributed ~15 tonnes free in his village. The rest was left to rot.

Ghogare had planted export quality bananas, incurring a Rs 4.5 lakh cost. He has a full-time job and advises his father and brother, who do the cultivation. The family has a crop loan of Rs 18 lakh at a 13% interest. With the revenue stream from bananas all but dried up, servicing the loan and buying inputs for the next season’s planting will be difficult without government relief. He is considering shifting to sugarcane, which is less expensive to cultivate, and where the price is fixed by the government and purchase of cane by sugar mills is assured.

Santosh Lacheta, 43, of Sattalai village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwali district sold bananas worth Rs 4 lakh before the lockdown at Rs 12-13/kg. After the event, he got Rs 2.5/kg for 15 tonnes. He doesn’t expect more than Rs 2/kg for another 4 tonnes. Because Lacheta’s is heavy black cotton soil with a 85% clay content—40-50% is ideal for bananas—he grows his crop on raised beds for proper drainage and root-zone aeration. He has installed drip irrigation, applies nutrients after soil and water analysis. The bananas he produces on his 12-acre farm are usually exported to Dubai, Oman, and Iran. India exported 1.4 lakh tonnes of bananas in April-January 2020 versus 1.35 lakh tonnes in the previous fiscal. The price per kilo was also slightly higher. But, exports seized up when Lacheta harvested his crop.

The price he received didn’t compensate his investment and effort. He believes the wholesalers raked it in.
In March, average daily arrivals of bananas at Delhi’s Azadpur mandi, from Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, dropped to 19.74 tonnes against 96.55 tonnes during the same period last year. The rates were almost double at Rs 2,350/quintal against Rs 1,150 last year. In the first three weeks of April, daily arrivals at the mandi averaged 21.17 tonnes, and most of the trade happened at Rs 2,350/quintal. Last April, the daily arrivals were 115.7 tonnes, and the rates mostly in the range of Rs 1,150-1,500/quintal. Consumers paid more at around Rs 40/kg at Mother Dairy booths.

Not all the bananas that arrive in Delhi pass through Azadpur mandi. Much of the stuff goes directly to wholesalers, where it is ripened with ethylene gas. Once ripened, the bananas keep for about four days.

Kalyansing Baburao Patil, who heads Jain Irrigation’s tissue culture and agricultural services department, has been active in creating public opinion against exploitation by local traders and wholesalers. Jain Irrigation introduced the Grand Naine variety in the 1990s in Jalgaon to create a market for its micro-irrigation equipment. By providing high-yielding clones and handholding the growers in efficient agronomic practices, it has made Jalgaon the country’s banana hub.

Patil says the cost of cultivation is not less than Rs 6/kg. Truck rentals shot up to Rs 4/kg soon after the lockdown, from Rs 3 earlier, but the exemption for distribution of fruits and vegetables soon brought this close to pre-lockdown levels. Daily, 150-200 trucks would leave Jalgaon for Delhi and other destinations, he said.

With wholesale prices at Rs 23/kg, up from Rs 11.5-15/kg last year, he believes traders could have paid farmers at least the cost of production. He reckons, owners of ripening chambers, mostly wholesalers, made about Rs 8/kg, some of them even earning over Rs 2 lakh a day. Patil’s brother, Dayal Singh, was so offended by the low price offered to him that he distributed 13 quintals of bananas free on April 16 at Bodwad taluka centre, ~40 km from Jalgaon.

The rate committee of the Jalgaon agricultural produce marketing committee has fixed Rs 600 a quintal as the floor trading price. Ramdas Tryambak Patil, 65, the committee’s president admits that it is difficult to enforce the directive because traders can refuse to buy. Farmers also cannot delay harvesting beyond a point.

Pulkrit Batra, 27, whose family has been banana wholesalers for 40 years, points to the logic of the free market to explain price behaviour. He gives a laundry list of costs incurred between purchase from farmers and sale to retailers. These have spiked due to the lockdown. He admits that farmers are losing money. From his telling, it appears that everyone else is not.

Author blogs at Views expressed are personal

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