Mumbai: In the wake of the lockdown imposed across the nation to control the spread of COVID-19, the grape and pomegranate farmers from Maharashtra are witnessing unprecedented losses.
Abhijit Zambre is a young farmer from Sangli district of Maharashtra. He has cultivated grapes this year on four acres--sowed and harvested in two different batches. Generally, the grapes season starts in October and goes on until February every year. But some farmers plan another batch of their crop with its season continuing until even mid-April. This planning needs much hard work, investment in fertilisers and medicines, and extreme care of the highly vulnerable fruit.
Abhijit's grapes from the latter batch [cultivated on one of the four acres] were supposed to be plucked and sent for export after March 10. But due to the in the state from March 22, he hardly had any time to harvest the produce. Grapes from Maharashtra are commonly exported to West Asia and European countries, but it has halted due to the pandemic. The domestic national market also remains severely affected due to the lockdown. So, Abhijit can rely only on the local market. He would have earned Rs 250 for per box in the international market, but instead, now has to settle for the price of Rs 70 per box in the local market. This has added to his woes as his earlier batch of the produce had been washed away because of heavy rains and a flood.
Sangli is the second largest district involved in grape cultivation in the state with the crop spread over 1,10,000 acres. Nasik tops the list in Maharashtra with 2,25,000 acres of land under grape cultivation. Both the districts were badly hit by the heavy monsoon.
"We have lost both the seasons. There are farmers who get good money in the normal season of November to January. But, as both seasons are lost, many farmers are facing a serious financial crisis this year," said Shankar Kolte Patil of Nasik, an award-winning grape grower.
When the grape market collapses, farmers turn to raisins. It ensures return of at least the production cost with 100 kg of grapes turned into 25 kg of raisins. But farmers are facing trouble on this front as well, as they need dipping oil and potassium carbonate to make raisins. These two products are usually imported from China. The cost of dipping oil stands at Rs 190 per litre normally and potassium carbonate costs about Rs 100 per kg. But with no import, the farmers are forced to buy both the products at inflated prices of Rs 230 and Rs 120 respectively. One litre of the oil and one kg of carbonate is required for the making of 100 kg raisins. At a time when farmers are already incurring losses, the increased cost of the two items is digging a deeper hole in their pockets.
Sandipan Waikar is a pomegranate farmer from Ahmednagar district. He has planted pomegranate on six acres of land and planned to pluck them after mid-March. However, with the lockdown announced, he has to sell the crop in the local and adjoining markets.
Waikar says that a few agents had approached him for the export of fruits at the cost of Rs 110 per kg. “But the lockdown has brought it down to Rs 35 to 40. I myself am facing losses of almost Rs 5-6 lakh. There are hundreds of farmers like me in my district," he said.
The long monsoon of almost five months last year had destroyed the crops of many pomegranate farmers as well. Whatever they had managed to save was being sold until before the COVID-19 outbreak.
"People are selling fruits of international quality in their local, village markets at throwaway prices. The number one quality pomegranate which gets up to Rs 100 per kg is now being sold at Rs 20 per kg in weekly markets of nearby villages. This is so less that even production cost is unlikely to be recovered," said Ankush Padavale of Mangalvedha, Solapur. He is the first pomegranate grower from the state to establish an export company. "Our major produce was exported by February itself. But two of our containers which were sent to the Europe market (These fruit containers first go to the Netherlands and later, distributed across Europe) have got almost half of the price. By then, the Europe market was getting closed and we had no option but to sell at whatever price they were offering," said Padavale.
A key demand by these grapes and pomegranate growers is that the government must waive their EMIs of loans for at least one year. "Not restructuring of loans. Waiving the loans for one year is very much necessary. We expect that the central and state governments give us this relief," said Pdavale. Many expressed fear that if the lockdown is extended beyond May 3, no relief for the growers can be seen on the horizon.
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