Kolkata, March 9: Hundreds of potato growers sat on a day-long dharna in the village of Champadanga in Tarakeshwar block of Hooghly district on Monday following a call by farmers’ unions and the West Bengal Kisan Congress. They demanded that the state government set a “just and equitable” minimum support price (MSP) for their produce at Rs 1,200 per quintal.
The farmers highlighted the fact that in 2010, when potato prices crashed due to market fluctuations, the then Left Front government had bought potatoes by spending over Rs 700 crore and giving relief to the farmers. They further demanded that insurance premium for crop insurance be paid by the government and that their situation be taken into account before crop insurance awards are paid.
Several farmer leaders including Sanjay Putatunda, president of the All India Kisan Sabha’s West Bengal unit, and Amal Halder, secretary of the AIKS, spoke at the meeting.
In his speech Putatunda said that the potato was one of the most important cash crops of the state and a mainstay of West Bengal's rural economy. He said that both the Centre and state were apathetic to the farmers’ problems.
Notably, potato growers are facing losses of Rs 7,000 per bigha of land as market prices have dropped. The market in the state is subject to huge price variation and volatility potato farmers are forced to sell their produce in the state at Rs one or two per kg, which is then dumped in cold storage by middlemen who reap a profit when prices rise. Farmers are resigned to losses despite a good harvest this year.
Halder highlighted the farmers’ agitation against the Farm Laws at Delhi’s borders which has taken the fight to the Centre. Mentioning that the “annadata” is “fighting it out” against a government trying to “break the movement by hook or crook”, he said that the farmers had so far defeated all the “conspiracies” hatched against them and were leading by example by creating a sense of amity among communities.
He also pointed out that in the states like Tripura where the BJP was in power the “entire democratic system had been usurped by them. In our state the BJP and its cohort, the TMC, should be defeated,” he said, mentioning that farmer leaders were coming to West Bengal and would address farmers in Kolkata at Ramlila Maidan.
Speaking out about the state of potato farmers in the state, former CPI(M) MLA and AIKS district secretary Bhaktaram Pan pointed that while the production cost of potatoes had increased manifold this year and that a price of Rs 600 for fifty kilos of potatoes would be the only way to save farmers from huge losses.
The price that farmers are getting at the moment is Rs 350 to Rs 380 per 50 kgs and the state government has declared a price of Rs 300 per 50 kg as the stipulated rate for cold storage owners to buy and store the produce.
There are three ways that potatoes reach the market. A portion of the produce is stored by the farmers themselves, a portion by middlemen (who are now buying it at Rs 350 to Rs 380) and by cold storage owners who buys it at Rs 300 from the farmers. Cold storage owners release batches subject to market volatility, when the natun aloo (new potato) stock is over.
The farmers have demanded that the minimum rate be set at Rs 600 per 50 kg since the earlier rate will not cover production costs which have increased dramatically.
West Bengal is one of the largest potato-growing states in the country after Uttar Pradesh and used to be the leader during the Left Front government’s regime. Hooghly district is the hub of potato production in the state and contributes over over 40% of the total potato cultivation in the state and is known for its high-quality Chandramukhi variety. Over 60,000 farmers from the district are dependent on its cultivation to make ends meet.