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Who Will Taste Grapes Of Wrath In Nashik?

May 19, 2024 10:06 IST

'During times of adversity, a brick becomes better than a stone. That is how I look at the election season.'

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi seeks votes for Bharati Pravin Pawar, the BJP candidate from Dindori, and Hemant Godse, the Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction)'s Nashik candidate, at Dindori, May 15, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The space around a large banyan tree in the heart of Kanmandale near Nashik has transformed into a village square bustling with discussions about onions, tomatoes, and grapes.

Men from this hamlet, which has a population of around 3,500, have gathered to raise their concerns about onion prices and water scarcity with the Dindori constituency's MP Bharati Pawar.

Maharashtra's Nashik counts itself as one of the major producers of onions in the country, producing about 6.6 million tonnes annually. The state contributes 43 per cent of the onions harvested in the country, followed by Madhya Pradesh (16 per cent), and Karnataka and Gujarat contribute around 9 per cent each.

As a result, challenges around onion production in this region and fluctuating prices of the kitchen staple are capable of swinging public sentiment, making it a politically sensitive crop.

The government attributes policy shifts around onions to unseasonal rains. Changes in the weather lead to poor yields, causing a shortage of the crop in the domestic market and eventually on India's dinner tables, stirring the lives of consumers.

Similarly, frequent changes in policy stance trouble farmers.

The Centre first imposed a 40 per cent export duty on onions in August last year, followed by a prohibition on export of the crop in December. It lifted the ban this month as the election drums began to beat.

The agitation of the farmers in Kanmandale, among thousands of others in Dindori and Nashik, stems from the government's decision to place a ban on the export of onions in the first place.

"All the red onions were sold at local markets at minimal rates. When a ban is placed, all the onions, including export-grade and local ones, come to the market collectively, which effectively reduces the price of all onions. They lifted the ban just after we sold all our onions," a farmer said.

To address this, Dindori's Pawar, who is the minister of state for health and family welfare and MoS for tribal affairs, is making a stop at hundreds of villages in her constituency to address farmer concerns and present her vision for the region as elections in this part of the country inch closer. Nashik and Dindori vote on May 20.

"The government has facilitated improvements for onion growers in the past decade. This includes a scheme for onion storage, help to farmers via PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi, and a processing unit for onions," she said in an interaction with Business Standard.

However, farmers reading the development are wary of Pawar's intervention in the onion issue.

"Only after the export ban was lifted, the average prices have increased to Rs 1,950 per quintal on average. Earlier, it was less than Rs 1,300 per quintal. There was also a water crisis here, which further increased our input costs," said Shivaji Aher, a farmer who had come to the Pimpalgaon Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC).

When Business Standard visited the Pimpalgaon APMC, it was packed with trucks and tractors carrying onions after weeks-long hiatus.

IMAGE: A farmer unloads his onion crop at the Nashik agricultural market. Photograph: ANI Photo

Shivaji Aher, a farmer from Niphad, added that farmers and traders alike have flocked to the APMC after onion prices improved in the market.

"If you had come here a week ago, you wouldn't have seen people coming to the mandi. But, I feel, Pawar could have considered visiting us when prices dipped to show support," he said.

Grapes are sour: Feeling the squeeze

"During times of adversity, a brick becomes better than a stone. That is how I look at the election season. Both the things hurt, but the brick is still softer," 40-year-old Ganesh Vadaje from Varkheda said.

Vadaje owns vineyards spanning over 4 acres, with his farm running into losses on account of high pesticide prices, GST, and irregular payment cycles.

"After COVID-19, I faced losses of more than Rs 18 lakh (1.8 million). There is a monopolisation of fertiliser and pesticide dealers in this area, and they have shot up prices by as much as four times the normal price. Pesticides attract 18 per cent GST," the teary-eyed farmer said.

Farmers in this belt export their grapes to countries such as Russia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Europe, among other regions. Bangladesh counts itself as one of the key importers of Indian grapes from Nashik. The government in Bangladesh has hiked the import duty on these grapes to Rs 104 per kilogram from Rs 65 per kg.

"Bangladesh was a big market, but with the tax there, it has become unsustainable to export grapes there. We are now shifting our focus to Kathmandu," another grape farmer, Shashikant Ugale, said.

Long payment cycles from traders in the area force farmers to reach out to banks to cover working capital requirements.

However, farmers claim that banks require a high level of paperwork, and bad CIBIL scores discourage them from reaching out to banks. "We have to rely on local sahukars (moneylenders)," the farmer said.

That said, despite gruelling challenges, Vadaje added that voting for the BJP is a matter of "asmita (pride)."

Ajinkya Kawale
Source: source image