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Gujarat Elections: Castor Growers Face ‘Loot’ in Absence of MSP; But Caste, Not Fair Pricing, a Poll Issue

Local candidates, instead of parties, are likely to play a crucial role. The community members say they will vote for the candidates irrespective of their political associations.
Gujarat Assembly Polls

Ahmedabad/New Delhi: There are many reasons for the amusement of ‘outsiders’ in the northern districts of Gujarat. If someone talks about his “friend”, he might not necessarily refer to any man of flesh and blood; it could be castor as the cash crop has been personified in the local lingua franca.

Castor plant is grown in arid and semi-arid regions. The world’s major producer countries of castor oil include India (16.51 lakh tonnes), Mozambique (0.72 lakh tonnes), China (0.17 lakh tonnes), Thailand (0.12 lakh tonnes) and Myanmar (0.12 lakh tonnes). India’s share in the global production of castor seed and oil stands at 90%. And Gujarat in India has a lion’s share of 80% in the production of castor seed. 

Castor oil and its derivatives are used to make paints, dyes, motor lubricants and cosmetic items such as soap cakes, surface shiners, etc., along with several medicines. Most of India’s output is exported.

Large patches of land across north Gujarat are dotted with castor plantations on both sides of highways and small roadways. It is one of the cash crops in the region, which is the world’s largest producer of oil seed. Almost every farmer in the region produces castor. And perhaps, that is why, the villages here are developed, very well laid out with concrete roads and have beautiful sprawling houses.

Gujarat Polls

Maganbhai Godadbhai Patel is among several farmers here who have been for decades planting the Kharif crop — which is sown between July-August and harvested between December and April.

Despite being a high-return crop, which is in high demand across the globe, the 60-year-old said he used to earn a lot but his business is not lucrative anymore. In the absence of transparency and strong governance, the farmers have not been reaping the desired benefits.

However, it is not at all an election issue in the state, which will vote on December 5 for the second and final phase to re-elect its 182-member Assembly. The first round of polling was held in 89 constituencies in December. Elections in the last phase will be held in as many as 93 segments, featuring 833 candidates.    

“We are being looted by the traders and exporters who lower the prices when the production is high. As a result, a large number of farmers have reduced its plantation to ensure high demands and get good returns. In 2020-21, I had grown it on three hectares of land and got a very good yield. But the prices hit an all-time low. Therefore, I have been growing it on just one hectare of land for the past two years and interestingly getting higher returns,” he told NewsClick, adding that people have shifted to other crops such as groundnuts, soybean, etc. to keep a check on production.

In 2016-2017, he said, the price had gone down to Rs 2,800 per 100 kg because of the high yield in the region, forcing people to reduce the plantation the next season (2017-18). He said the strategy resulted in a better price (Rs 3,500/quintal). 

In 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to him and other farmers, the prices further improved and went up to Rs 6,000 per 100 kg. As on December 2 this year, the price of various varieties of the oil seed varied between Rs 6,668 to Rs 7,350 per quintal in different districts of north Gujarat and Saurashtra.

“It is not us (farmers) but the traders and exporters who earn good profits. While we make a profit of 10-20% or 30% at max, their returns stand at 80-90% just because they have their warehouses and can wait for the price to go up. Farmers need money soon after the crop is harvested,” said Sureshbhai Patel, who has castor crop on his two hectares of land in Palanpur, adding that the government is just bothered about collecting the Goods and Services Tax from the produce and has allegedly left them at the “mercy” of traders and exporters.

Input costs, according to farmers, have risen around 50-60% in the past few years, mostly due to fertilisers, pesticides, and water. They said the cultivation cost usually is around Rs 45,000 per acre. According to the current yield of around 8-14 quintals per bigha (0.61 acres or 0.16 hectare), they end up making anywhere between Rs 27,200 and Rs 47,000 per bigha at an average price of around Rs 3,400 per quintal.

Explaining how pricing and trading of castor are done, Bhikhabhai Patel, a peasants’ leader from Palanpur, said castor growers sell their yields in the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) markets, but the prices are offered by the traders there based on the quality of the oil seed.  

“In absence of an MSP (minimum support price), the traders have their monopoly. They offer prices, keeping their interests in mind. They are least bothered about the rising production costs and our returns. When production is high, we fail to bargain; but when the yield is lower, we dictate the prices,” he told NewsClick, demanding that the government must fix a price every year so that farmers’ “exploitation” can be stopped.

He further added India exports castor oil to the United States and China where it is processed and used in the manufacturing of a range of products. The products are then imported back to India to be sold in the domestic market. 

“Had there been such industries in the country, the production would have been consumed in the local market. It would have been in the interests of both the farmers and the economy of the country,” he concluded.

Due to the strong prices of edible oils, the castor oil price is expected to stay strong. Last year between April and March the castor oil export was 6.86 lakh tonnes, which during the current year in the same period decreased to 6.65 lakh tonnes.

According to the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India (SEAI), the castor sowing for the 2022-23 season in the country has risen by more than 1,00,000 hectares from 0.74 million hectares to more than 0.88 million hectares due to prevailing higher prices of oilseeds.

“Farmers have opted for castor crop over groundnut in two major castor seed producing states —Gujarat and Rajasthan — as a result of the prevailing higher prices of castor seeds,” said SEAI President Atul Chaturvedi.

He said the prices of castor seeds have exceeded Rs 1,500 per 20 kg (or Rs 7,500 per quintal) in the domestic market which was around Rs 1,200 per 20 kg (Rs 6,000 per 100 kg) in September 2021.

The reason behind this rise earlier this year, according to him, was the Russia-Ukraine war that caused a hike in the prices of all edible oils, including non-edible castor oil. “Although prices of all other edible oils declines, yet the castor oil prices remained stagnant because of its tight supply in the 2021-22 season,” he added.

The acreage of oilseeds reported during 2021-22 was 6.960 lakh hectares (17.199 lakh acres) as against 7.336 lakh hectares (18.128 lakh acres) during the same period in 2020-21 across the country. Among states, Gujarat is leading with 5.389 lakh hectares (13.316 lakh acres) under castor followed by Rajasthan with 1.200 lakh hectares (2.965 lakh acres), Andhra Pradesh with 0.177 lakh hectares (0.437 lakh acres) and Telangana with 0.022 lakh hectares (0.54 lakh acres). 


But despite this, it's not all an electoral issue in North Gujarat, which will go to polls in the second and final phase of the state assembly elections on December 5, as votes are cast here “purely on caste lines”.

“Elections in this region are all about caste. Issues always take a backbench,” said Sandeepbhai Girishbhai Patel.

Patidars (Kadva and Leuva Patels), Thakore and OBC Chaudhary are numerically significant in north Gujarat, which accounts for 32 seats spread across six districts Gandhinagar, Aravalli, Sabarkantha, Mehsana, Patan and Banaskantha.

The Congress has performed well in the region in the past two elections. While it bagged 17 seats each in both elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 15 and 14 constituencies in the 2012 and 2017 elections respectively. 

Of its total MLAs in the region, the Opposition party has fielded 11 of them once again. On the other hand, the ruling party has nominated only six of its 14 sitting legislators.

The saffron party is faced with rebellion and huge anti-incumbency. There seems to be an undercurrent of anger palpable among the dominant OBC Chaudhary community because of the arrest of Vipul Chaudhary — former home minister and chairman of the Durgasagar Dairy (a dairy cooperative) — on corruption charges.

Local candidates, instead of parties, are likely to play a crucial role. The community members will apparently vote for the candidates irrespective of their political associations.

Keeping in mind the local caste dynamics, both the BJP and the Congress have fielded candidates from the Patidar and the Koli communities. Rebellion in Banaskantha and Deesa Assembly constituencies may also impact the BJP’s prospects in the region.

“The caste factor is still at the core of Gujarat’s politics and tickets are also distributed accordingly,” political observer Achyut Yagnik told NewsClick, adding that while there is a possibility that the Congress might retain and even win some additional seats, predicting anything in this election is a bit difficult as voters are largely silent.

He added the Congress has done its best to woo the castes, which are “angry” with the BJP and can increase its vote share in the region.

Another political analyst Hari Desai feels that Congress has an “upper hand” in the region in the ongoing elections as well.

“It’s a challenge for the BJP to retain even its loyal vote bank of Patidars,” he added.

The debutant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), believe poll watchers, is not going to make any difference in the region as the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit has influence in Surat of south Gujarat and some seats in Saurashtra region. Therefore, there seems to a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP in the region.

They said the Patel community has traditionally voted for the BJP. It did not desert the party even when former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, once their strongman, rebelled against the party and floated his own outfit — the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). 

This faithful voting group of the BJP does not seem to be totally intact in this election as its youngsters are vocal against the government’s alleged inaction in controlling skyrocketing prices and rising unemployment. However, the older Patels, who still have some memory of the Congress’ Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim (KHAM) combination that kept Patidars out of the system, are largely stuck to the BJP.

The composition of the crowd at Hardik Patel’s rallies shows that it is mostly made up of youngsters, leading to the surmise that while the older Patels, who still have some memory of the Congress’ Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim (KHAM) combination that kept Patidars out of the system, may stick to the BJP, youngsters may choose the Congress.

Electorates are also unhappy with the way the BJP has handled Congress turncoat Alpesh Thakore — whom the ruling party has fielded from Gandhinagar South seat. As a BJP candidate, he lost the by-election from Patan district’s Radhanpur in 2019. He had won the seat in 2017 on a Congress ticket. Thakores are considered to be Congress loyals.

The region has three seats each reserved for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and as many for the Scheduled Caste (SC). While two of the three SC-reserved seats are with the BJP, the Congress holds all three ST seats. The third SC-reserved seat (Vadgam) is being represented by Jignesh Mevani who had won it as an independent candidate in the last election with Congress support. This election, he is a grand-old party nominee.               

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