New Delhi: In January this year, a potato farmer from Agra district made news for sending a money order of Rs 490 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was his net income after selling 19,000 kilograms of potatoes. The money order, according to the farmer, was supposed to serve as a reminder to the prime minister of his promises – specifically, that of doubling farmers’ incomes.
Potato farmers in Uttar Pradesh – which accounts for more than 30% of India’s potato produce – have been complaining about low prices for the past three years. The problem is particularly severe in the regions of Agra, Hathras, Mathura and Aligarh, which go to polls next and account for a third of UP’s potato produce. All five parliamentary constituencies in these districts are currently held by the BJP.
“The BJP has done nothing for potato farmers or any farmer over the past five years. Why should we vote for them?,” said Pradeep Sharma, the farmer who had sent the money order to Modi.
Sharma, a resident of Barauli Ahir in Agra district, says that in the past four years, his debt has accumulated to Rs 35 lakh. “I have been in trouble since 2015, when my crop failed due to a pest infestation. After demonetisation in 2016, the price of potato has been lower than the cost of production,” he said.
No help forthcoming
He points out that he has written letters to Akhilesh Yadav, Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi seeking their help. But, none has been forthcoming. “No one has even bothered to visit me, forget providing help.”
This time, Sharma says, he may vote for the Congress. “I am definitely not voting for the BJP. They are the most anti-farmer party. The regional parties are also not capable of addressing the issue. The Congress has said it wants to work for the farmer. And I have faith in Priyanka Gandhi,” Sharma said.
Rajesh Choudhary, a potato farmer in Mathura, says that prices for the past three years haven’t gone beyond Rs 5 per kilogram. “In fact, most of the time they have been around Rs 3 or even less,” he said.
He had voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in the state’s 2017 assembly elections. “I trusted Modi. All Jats did. We believed that he will work for the benefit of our community and ensure that we get a fair price for our crops,” he said.
But, he is disappointed. “Nothing has changed. We haven’t been getting the right price for the past three years,” said Choudhary. “This year, I am thinking of returning to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).”
The RLD’s prospects
The RLD has traditionally commanded a large chunk of the Jat vote in western UP. But, in the past few elections, its popularity among core supporters has dwindled. So much so, that the party’s young scion and grandson of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, Jayant Choudhary, lost to Hema Malini in 2014 by a margin of over 3 lakh votes in Mathura.
This election, Choudhary has shifted to Baghpat, where his father Ajit Singh was elected six times and his grandfather thrice.
Now that Baghpat has voted, Choudhary has been campaigning in the eight Lok Sabha seats of southwest UP which vote on April 18. “Potato prices are a major issue in most of the constituencies here. The government introduced a minimum export price, which restricted exports. It led to a glut in the domestic market, bringing down prices,” he said.
While the UP government has promised to procure potatoes from farmers at Rs 487 per quintal, it hasn’t happened. “Its failure feeds into the larger issue of farmer discontent with the BJP,” said Choudhary.
Cost of production higher than market prices
On his six acre farm, Vijay Sharma grows potatoes in Hathras. “This season, I have sold 80 quintals (8,000 kilograms) of potatoes. On an average, I have got Rs 4 per kilogram, which is less than even the cost of production,” he said. According to him, it takes about Rs 8 to grow one kilogram of potatoes. “On top of that, we have to spend on cold storage and transport it to the mandi.”
Cold storages charge Rs 2.5 per kilogram for storage through the season. Since potato is a perishable crop, farmers store around 80% of their produce in cold storages to make staggered sales through the year.
“Usually, we are able to make some profits in the off season, around May and June, when prices rise. But, for the past three seasons, prices have been lower than the cost of production, even in the off season,” said Sharma.
As The Wire pointed out in 2018, demonetisation in November 2016 triggered the drop in prices. An analysis of daily prices since 2014 in three major mandis of Agra, Mathura and Hathras showed that prices crashed immediately after demonetisation. In November 2016, the average price in the three mandis was Rs 916 per quintal, which fell 41.8% to Rs 532 for the month of December – the first full month after demonetisation.
“Demonetisation broke the back of farmers. A few days after demonetisation, I sold 30 quintals of potatoes at Rs 1 per kilogram in the mandi. A week before, I sold 40 quintals at Rs 11 per kilogram,” said Sharma.
He too apportions the blame to the BJP government at the Centre and in the state. “The BJP has not been willing to address the problems faced by farmers. The government could have procured potatoes from farmers. It could have encouraged more exports. But, it chose not to do anything,” Sharma said.
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will vote for the SP-BSP-RLD alliance. “The other side does not offer any clear solutions. Modi remains the best option. He needs to be given another chance,” Sharma said. “And, if the entire community is voting for the BJP, how can I go against that?”