By Arun Kumar Shrivastav
A bumper potato crop and a surplus from the previous year have led to a sharp fall in prices. And, it’s driving millions of Indian potato farmers to desperation in the main potato-growing states — Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. India is the world’s second-largest potato producer, with an annual production of 50 million tons. China leads the chart with 78 million tons. Ukraine and Russia take the third and fourth slots with 21 million tons and 20 million tons respectively. The total global potato production was 376 million tons in 2021.
Officials in the Indian state of West Bengal which is a major potato-growing state estimate the output to be 12 million tons, a whopping 33% more than the output last year, whose surplus of 3 lakh tons is still lying in cold storage across the state. As a result, potato prices have fallen to Rs 5 per kg or Rs 500 for a quintal in the wholesale market. The input cost for potato per bigha in West Bengal is about Rs 25,000 while farmers are earning a maximum of Rs 17,000 from the per bigha output. The prices may fall further when the full harvest, which has just begun, comes to the market.
While the excess potato can earn a good profit if kept in cold storage and taken out when the prices are up. But, right now, farmers need money to repay the loan taken during the potato plantation season and invest in the upcoming summer season crops. West Bengal is holding Panchayat elections in July 2023 and the 15 lakh potato farmers in the state who are hit by overproduction and price-crash may hurt the prospects of the ruling All India Trinamool Congress.
A Times of India report provides a vivid description of the farmers’ plight. One 57-year-old Sukumar Ghosh reportedly consumed poison and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. His relatives said Ghosh had mortgaged his wife’s jewelry and took a loan of Rs 3 lakh. He invested the money in potatoes, expecting good returns. But the bumper crop resulted in a price-crash, leaving Ghosh in utter frustration. An organization that represents farmers is demanding that the state government buy the excess potatoes from farmers. Although the state government is yet to make any announcement on the issue, given the tight financial situation of state governments, it doesn’t seem to be a proposal on the table right now.
Meanwhile, potato prices in Punjab have reportedly fallen to a quarter of the price paid for the seeds. The state mainly grows seed potatoes used by farmers all over the country. Some parts of Punjab have the same status in farming seed potatoes as North Gujarat has for growing process-variety potatoes that are used in making French fries and potato chips. The seed potatoes, whose demand has plummeted this year to record levels, are used by farmers for three consecutive seasons before they turn to new seeds. Excess potato production in the country is of the table variety that is commonly used in household kitchens. Besides the bumper crop, the size of the potatoes is also smaller this year.
The price of table potatoes during this time last year was about Rs 1200 per quintal. It is Rs 500 this year. Similarly, the price of seed potatoes was Rs 2000 per quintal last year which is now between Rs 1000 and Rs 1200 per quintal.
In contrast to farmers’ plight in potato-growing states, the condition of potato farmers in Gujarat is slightly better because of the mix of process-variety and table-variety of potatoes grown by them. The state is expected to produce 1.9 million tons of potatoes suitable for processing and 3.3 million tons of table-variety potatoes. Process-variety potatoes are grown mainly in Aravalli and Sabarkantha districts in North Gujarat. The process-variety of potatoes in Gujarat is mostly grown through contract farming in which big companies are involved throughout the different stages of production — plantation, cultivation, harvest, and storage. This is slowly but surely improving the overall farming and storage practices in the state. For example, there were 532 cold storages, with 95 in North Gujarat, and in 2022 in Gujarat. In 2023, 10 more cold storages are being added and all of them are going to be in North Gujarat, where process-variety of potatoes are grown on contract farming.
Farmers grow potatoes twice a year. In the plains of Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal, a spring crop in January and the main crop in early October are planted. In Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, the Kharif and Rabi crops are planted in June and October-November respectively.
From the point of food security, potatoes which are the fourth largest crop after, maize, rice, and wheat, are extremely important. Also, its cultivation requires less water. Neglecting potato farmers is certainly not a good option for India. From the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan, food crises are real. Let’s not underestimate it! (IPA Service)