For a farmer not connected politically getting berth in cold storage is not a cakewalk.
West Bengal’s isolation from the national mainstream is illustrated by the movement of potato prices in the state. Policies framed here are at best whimsical and at worst made to help a certain section of people. In short, the common men, be they consumer or potato farmers, suffer. Since democratic system in the state is largely dependent on political muscle flexing, the curious shape of potato economics does not hurt the political dispensation in the state.
That the sharp rise in price of potato in retail market is an issue can be illustrated by the fact that the ruling Trinamool Congress-managed newspaper chose to address the issue. The party newspaper, Jago Bangla, blamed the Narendra Modi government at the Centre for such a rise in the retail price of potato—rising crude prices being one such reason. For a Bengali food platter, potato is an important ingredient. Rice, potato and fish are part of Bengali staple food. Potato price sensitivity being high, the state government does not allow transport of potato outside the state. Few enterprising potato traders/growers adopt illegal means, easily available in a corruption dominated administration to sell their products to other states.
Curiously, potato growers claim that even now when high retail price of potato is an issue the cold storage gate price is less than the cost of potato growers—reportedly price of about Rs 1,800 per quintal is less by at least Rs 100 per bag. In March, when the crop started being harvested, potato price in the state was depressed. Crops from Uttar Pradesh, the largest potato growing state, depressed the West Bengal market price. In the state, import from other state is not banned. The potato farmers of West Bengal were spotted dumping their crop on the field waiting for some buyer to bail them out. It was seen many farmers even giving potato almost free to any retail buyer passing by in cars. All they were looking for had been to recover whatever they could by selling the harvest. Potato rots fast and cannot be kept long like say rice or wheat.
Potatoes must be stocked in cold storages to improve shelf life. The cold storages start loading new crop from the end of February when the produce starts getting harvested. The stored potato stock starts reaching market from May until the end of the storage season, which is November. In 2021, the potato farmers/traders pleaded with the state administration to extend the time limit beyond 30 November. But the administration acceded only on 29th, one day before the cold storage closure. Clearly, this helped only those who were privy to such machinations. Potato growers mostly lost.
While cold storage is an option, for a farmer not connected politically getting berth in cold storage is not a cakewalk. Mostly the muscle flexing middlemen pick up their harvest at a throwaway price and then keep those at cold storages to sell when price moves higher. A marginal farmer, always starved of liquidity, cannot afford to book a cold storage space and wait for rise in price. The cost of keeping potato in cold storage for the whole season is estimated at Rs 160. The potato growers are always at a loss since the entire market is loaded in favour of the middlemen.
It is estimated that the input cost of producing potatoes in West Bengal is around Rs 4 per kg, while the average farm gate price hovers around Rs 4 to Rs 5 per kg only. In effect, a grower hardly makes money. The cost this year increased first due to unseasonal rain in winter months led to loss for farmers necessitating a second of sowing. And then when potato was getting harvested, cheaper potato from Uttar Pradesh flooded the market, depressing the price. A double whammy for the hapless potato growers, who had to sell to middlemen at even less than their cost of production. Researchers found out that over 90% of potato farmers in West Bengal sell their crop to village traders who are mostly aligned to the political power of the state. They can access cold storage space and are connected to traders and wholesalers. Farmers, without such network, end up barely recovering their cost. But a middlemen centric economy of the state finds no problem with this.
Economics of potato trade illustrates what ails the West Bengal policy making. It is seen that decisions are always taken on the spur of the moment without having long term benefits of the growers and consumers in perspective. There is hardly any organised set up of providing better quality seeds or assistance to farmers for accessing cold storage space and marketing when prices are up. If 90% of growers receive a paltry marginal return, often enough bordering on loss, the most important initiative of a democratic administration should be to assist and hand hold this target group. Instead the entire potato business is in the hands of middlemen. It is common enough to see Kolkata office goers with connection in potato belt investing in potato bonds every season.
The lack of attention created its attendant problems. Quality of potato crop in West Bengal is poorer than other states. It has been seen that even whole sale price of potatoes in Madhya Pradesh are higher than that of West Bengal. The reason is said the premium strains of table potato cultivated in MP, compared to the table variety of potatoes produced in West Bengal. It was also seen that wholesale prices in Gujarat increased from Rs 8.76 per kg in 2012-13 to Rs 9.9 per kg in 2018-19. Production of potatoes in Gujarat is demand-driven, and food processing companies collaborate with the potato farmers, supplying them with quality potato seeds. The maturity index and harvesting period of potatoes are crucial factors contributing to a better price for processed potatoes in Gujarat. In West Bengal, in contrast, the free market is not allowed at all. Who suffers in the end—the poor potato growers only who continue to live at starvation level?
West Bengal, a state where cacophony of political discourse is the shrillest in India, rarely touches on issues impacting its economy. Curiously, it does not need much investment from the administration to cure the malady affecting its potato economy. After all it is the largest horticultural crop of the state and West Bengal is the second largest grower of this widely consumed product. The rotten potato economy is a sign of the state of the economy of West Bengal.