Tanaji Patil from Domgaon village of Usmanabad district has grown banana on his two-acre farm. His crop is better this time but Tanaji is worried about rates. "I read somewhere that due to increasing patients of Covid-19, a lockdown is likely to be imposed in the state. That is why agents (merchants of banana) are asking for the lowest price. If it happens, we will be finished completely," worried Tanaji told NewsClick over the phone.
In February and March, in the advent of the summer season, banana generally sells for Rs 18 to Rs 20 per kilogram. A farm with one acre of banana trees produces about 40 to 45 tonnes of banana. In Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, the production of banana per acre exceptionally goes up to 70 tonnes. Still, 40 tonnes of banana brings Rs 7 lakh at least. "But the current rate is Rs 7 or 8 per kg. That too for the first crop of the tree. Still, we are trying to sell it because if the lockdown comes, then the income will be zero," said Tanaji.
As per the state's horticulture department's data, Maharashtra is India's largest banana producing state with more than 70 lakh metric tonne production per year. More than 60 thousands hectares of land is under banana cultivation. In Banana business, the rate of fruit depends on the age of the tree as well as the weight of fruit. The fruits grown out of the two or three years old trees get a lesser price.
Bhanudas Choudhari, a progressive farmer from Chalisgaon tehsil of Jalgaon district, sold 55 tonnes of banana on February 6 for Rs 8 per kilogram. "The market was not rising. Banana is not like grapes that you can keep in cold storage and all. You will have to sell it once the fruit is ready. You get just eight to ten days. I had no option but to sell," said Bhanudas.
The banana story is not an exception. The same is the situation with watermelon, papaya and other fruits. One could find some financially strong farmers in banana production. But watermelon is actually a fruit produced by the marginalised farmers. It is solely a summer fruit and this window from mid-February to May end is the season for this fruit. But once the time for the crop harvesting comes, the farmer cannot wait for more than five to six days. Else, they become a waste.
Eknath Katkade is a marginalised farmer having just one and a half-acre land in Mangaon tehsil of Raigad. His overall production of watermelon never exceeded three tonnes. The general rate of watermelon would be Rs 16 to Rs 22 per kg, as per the quality of the fruit. Eknath's fruits will be ready by the first week of March. But the current market rates are not at all encouraging to him. "One of the farmers from our village sold watermelon at the rate of Rs 11. Everyone is saying that the market won't go up this year too. We are small farmers. We will have to bear big losses," Eknath said on phone.
The fruit business story is complicated than other crops. Because people's consumption of fruits depends on many things, mainly their finances. The demand for fruits has also gone down this year with the pandemic and the consequent lockdown hitting the economy, and impacting the poor the most.
Milind Jagtap, a grape trader in Nasik, observed that the demand for grapes has gone down this year. "If you compare the business to the year 2019-20, the demand is not more than 65%. By mid-February, people start consuming fresh grapes. We used to send at least 250 crates of grapes to Byculla market every day. But now it is somewhere between 170 to 200. Our agents in Mumbai say don't send more crates as there is no sell," said Jagtap.
These seasonal fruits, especially banana, watermelon, grapes, and pomegranate, need good water supply. This year, the rains are also more than average in Maharashtra. So, farmers as well as fruit traders are expecting quality crops. But the decreased demand has become a major concern for traders.
Byculla fruit market is Mumbai's biggest fruit market, in which Hemant Mandlik is active in the association of traders. According to him, there are two reasons for the current condition. First is that people are not spending much on fruits. And the second reason is the increasing numbers of corona patients. "You don't order fruits like pizza. You come to the market, select the fruits and buy it. But the increasing number of patients in the last ten days have again stoked fear into people and they are avoiding places like the fruit market," said Hemant.
In addition to this fear, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said on Monday that if the number of patients kept increasing then the state government will have to think about strict action. People have only one idea of strict action in their mind--that is lockdown. So, the market has gone down further.
Maharashtra has seen more than 3,000 daily patients since February 12. Especially the numbers are getting increased in cities again. The domestic consumption of fruits is mainly in the cities and for a state like Maharashtra, it is around Mumbai, Pune, Nasik, Aurangabad and Nagpur. All these factors are mixing up and becoming another choking point for the ailing fruit industry.