With less than a year remaining until the elections, the Narendra Modi government is facing a significant round red obstacle that is both financially burdensome and concerning – tomatoes.
The price of tomatoes has skyrocketed to Rs 250 per kg, rendering them over 200% more expensive than petrol (Rs 97 per litre in Delhi). Reports indicate a staggering 445% inflation in tomato prices, making them unaffordable for the average citizen. Tomatoes have essentially become a precious commodity or red gold, forcing individuals to choose between buying 2 litres of petrol or 1 kg of tomatoes.
It’s not just tomatoes. In the past month, it has become increasingly difficult for the working class in India to afford vegetables. Peas, ginger and other summer vegetables like pumpkin, gourds (lauki, tori, karela), and okra, along with limes, have all experienced sharp hyperinflation. This dire situation has prompted an RBI study to warn that the surge in tomato prices could disrupt the trajectory of inflation. Major retail chains like McDonald’s have even removed tomatoes from their burgers and wraps. And vernacular media is filled with reports of tomato burglaries and heists.
This tomato crisis was triggered by erratic weather patterns. India has been facing extreme weather events this year, including heavy rain and heatwaves, which disrupted wheat production in central and northern India during the Rabi season. Furthermore, cyclones and untimely rains have wreaked havoc on off-season production regions in North India, such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Kashmir, damaging tomato farms in the southern and coastal parts of the country. Although some farmers in Himachal Pradesh managed to fetch over Rs 100 per kg for their tomatoes, their success was short-lived due to heavy rains that not only destroyed tomato crops but also severely damaged hilly roads and national highways, disrupting the supply chain in many areas.
While climate change certainly plays a significant role, India has been grappling with supply chain issues for its three staple vegetables – tomatoes, potatoes, and onions – for quite some time. A couple of years ago, the Modi government launched Operation Greens and a TOP (tomato, onion, potato) programme, which offered freight and infrastructure subsidies. However, red tape has had its way, and the current crisis has not been addressed. Erratic weather has put the scheme to the test, and it appears to be falling apart.
Rather than implementing real-time measures, the government is soliciting solutions from the public when the crisis has reached its peak, under the guise of the ‘Tomato Grand Challenge’.
It looks more like a PR stunt than a sincere effort to address the issue. This approach is disheartening, considering that just last season, tomato farmers protested against plummeting prices by dumping truckloads of tomatoes onto the streets. Many farmers got Rs 1-2 per kg for their tomato harvests, and onion prices were equally dismal. In Maharashtra, several farmers died by suicide, demanding government intervention to counter predatory market forces that intentionally suppressed tomato and onion prices. Unfortunately, there was no government programme or scheme in place to assist these struggling farmers in north and south India, resulting in massive wastage of vegetables as farmers had to bear the cost of selling their produce.
It’s crucial to remember that 80 crore Indians rely on the government for their food rations, but concrete plans to prevent harvest losses are conspicuously absent. NAFED and other agencies stood by as farmers were forced to destroy their vegetable harvests, while urban populations remained apathetic due to the government’s repeated assurances that “all is well” in the food economy.
The tomato shortage is a failure of administration and agriculture. Had the Tomato Grand Challenge actively involved farmers as stakeholders, perhaps Indians wouldn’t have to endure exorbitant prices for vegetables and tomatoes. There is an urgent need to establish cold storage facilities at the village level, promote direct market links and introduce special Minimum Support Prices (MSP) for TOP vegetables, along with government procurement and growing quotas for farmers. Without such measures, India will struggle to emerge from this crisis.
Indra Shekhar Singh tweets at @Indrassingh.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.