Representational image. | Image Courtesy: New Indian Express
Ansaram Kokat fed the last lot of his tomatoes to the cattle at home. With markets still closed and farmers not being allowed to sell vegetables in nearby cities, Ansaram has no other option. “I would have earned Rs 7,000-10,000 from those tomatoes. But the police are not allowing markets to function in the tehsil. Who will waste money on transport produce to the cities? So, it’s better to feed your cattle,” he said.
Almost all the vegetable growing farmers of Maharashtra are facing similar challenges, and losses that run into hundreds of crores of rupees are beating down an already grounded rural economy.
The Maharashtra government has given permission for agriculture-related work during the lockdown. Farmers can travel to buy seeds or make any other such purchase. They are also allowed to travel, taking their produce to any area. But that is not enough. For vegetable farmers, markets need to be open, or a system which allows them to sell their vegetables in cities must be devised.
Aniket Bondre is another farmer from Murum village in Phaltan teshil in Satara district. While Ansaram was from Marathwada, Aniket’s home falls in Western Maharashtra. He also grows tomatoes in two acres of his farm. “We are waiting for the markets to open so that we can pluck the tomato and take them there. There are tomatoes in almost 70 acres in our village, waiting to be plucked,” he added.
It is not the same with other vegetables, however. An entire crop of okra was destroyed in his village. "Villagers tried to take the crop to Pune, but that did not work out. Local market committees are closed too. So, the farmers threw it under the rotor," he said.
In Satara, and also in the adjoining districts of Sangli, Solapur and Kolhapur, the vegetable business is under strain due to the lockdown. Under the usual system, agents come to stay in the village during this period, they buy vegetables and send to shops in Mumbai or Pune.
“Our agents are ready to come in but the police are not allowing them. They can stay in primary schools which are closed now. This could at least start the supply chain. The government will have to permit this,” said Aniket.
Almost 40% of Maharashtra is urbanised and its rural areas provide for the needs of cities with products like milks, meat, vegetables and other essentials. Vegetable growing farmers are generally small land holders. For them, losing out on even a single season of crop is a big loss. The money they earn this summer will help them to spend during the monsoon. It would take care of educational fees for their children and expenses for the Kharif crop.
Shrenik Narade from the Nationalist Congress Party is known for having a way with words on social media, especially on Facebook, where he shares his experiences of farming and markets. He has a cluster of beans in his farm but the lockdown has not even allowed him to get back his input cost.
“I would have earned Rs 80 per kilogram for the beans. But now I am selling it to a local agent for just Rs 30; I have no choice. The police do not allow us to sit in the market. We are banned from crossing into another district. We are only left with agents as buyers. This situation is forcing us farmers to sell the produce at whatever price these agents decide," said Shrenik.
"The government should allow us to sit in the local market to sell the vegetables. It should also allow us to cross district borders so that we can go and sell in nearby districts. To avoid the rush and chaos in markets, the government can mark a safe distance between two sellers and also ask people to make a queue," suggested Shrenik.
Mumbai, its suburban areas and Pune are major markets for vegetables and fruits in Maharashtra. However, these are also the areas most affected by COVID-19 in the state. As of now, the lockdown will continue till May 3. However, buzz in the state has it that the lockdown period for this area would inevitably be increased. The state government will have to come up with a plan to take vegetables from farmers and sell it in the cities. It is the only way to help these farmers right now.