The biggest political issue dominating rural Maharashtra currently is the various types of farmer agitations. Extreme fluctuation in the commodity markets has led to farmers being dissatisfied with the pricing pattern and the returns that they get. This is one issue that may dominate politics in the coming months. For about three decades Maharashtra has been the centre of India's biggest onion market based in Nashik district. Maharashtra also happens to be India's biggest producer and wholesale market for tomatoes based in the northern part of Pune district. Both these commodities have seen extreme fluctuation in prices in the last few months. Tomato prices which had reached ₹240 a kilo just till about 1 month ago, have now crashed to about ₹5 per kilo in the wholesale market and about ₹10 per kilo in the retail market. Similar is the story of onions and now for the last 6 days India's biggest onions wholesale market has remained closed because of farmers and traders both being extremely unhappy about the pricing pattern. The central government intervened some time ago in the onion price issue and announced that NAFED (National agricultural cooperative marketing federation) will be procuring onions in the wholesale market at reasonable prices. Sensing that the crash in onion prices would become a political issue among farmers in North Maharashtra, Union Ministers rushed to Nashik district and held meetings with leaders of farmers’ unions before announcing the decision about procurement. However about one and a half months down the line the issue seems to have not been solved at all; in fact it has escalated to a worse level.
The decision by traders and farmers to keep the national wholesale market of Lasalgaon closed is going to cause a slow but steady rise in the prices of onions.The problem started over two months ago when sensing a blood in the onions market the union government decided to impose a 40% export duty on onions. This caused resentment among farmers who were unable to send their stock for exports and got a feeling that they were losing out on huge profits that they could have made after two or three seasons of low yield.
When the union government’s decision imposing export duty came, Maharashtra was in the midst of political turmoil in the state with the NCP splitting. Prominent NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal who is Nashik district strongman spoke about the seriousness of the issue but could not immediately get into action mode. Maharashtra agriculture minister Dhananjay Munde who also was part of the Ajit Pawar NCP group rushed to New Delhi to hold meetings with union ministers to convince them about withdrawing the 40% export duty. In all this the prices started fluctuating massively, and sensing the glut in the market as well as the export duty issue the prices of onions crashed. Union Minister Bharti Pawar rushed to Nashik to try and convince farmers that NAFED would start procurement and the problem would be solved, but somehow that has not worked out well.
The root cause behind the problem persisting seems to be the difference in priorities that various politicians have. The BJP is clearly focused on its middle and higher middle class urban voters who are concerned about food inflation, while the Nationalist Congress Party seems to be more focused on farmers who are demanding higher prices for their commodities. Till now the BJP and NCP were political adversaries but now a large faction of the NCP has come together with BJP and there seems to be a clash of interest between these two groups. The BJP at the centre is very much concerned about food price inflation while Ajit Pawar group and many leaders from the NCP are more concerned about farmers getting higher prices. This has led to confusion among policymakers about what stand to take. When it comes to imposing duties or deciding the price for the wholesale market procurement.
Onions are not the only commodity where this kind of confusion persists. Recently fluctuation was seen in the prices of tomatoes in Maharashtra as well as in the rest of the country. India's largest tomato-producing region happens to be in western and northern Maharashtra. Narayangaon in Pune district is the largest wholesale tomato market in India. Some shortage in production about four months ago was sensed and tomato prices rose to ₹240 a kilo for over two months ahead of the monsoon season. The government as well as politicians could do little to control the prices. Traders and farmers made huge profits and looking at that next season, the last number of farmers went for tomato cultivation. Which has now resulted in a total crash in prices. Politicians are unable to give any kind of direction about future markets or commodity price fluctuation in advance to the farmers. Especially because Maharashtra has seen too much turbulence in politics in the past few months, district-level politicians seem to be busy fighting their battles or changing sides, and the interest of the farmers has been totally ignored. Now the crash in tomato prices is going to hurt the farmers very badly. This will obviously have its political impact as farmers remain the largest voting block in the rural areas of all parts of Maharashtra. Similar issues have been faced by farmers who produce milk or fruits. Sudden drops in prices and the uncertainty in procurement prices are a big issue from them. What is announced in public by political leaders as a remedy is often not implemented at all.
India's largest onion wholesale market remains closed for six days as traders and farmers of north Maharashtra agitate. This is going to cause some serious impact on the supply of onions and the prices will start to rise as the supply chain gets badly disrupted. Politicians across party lines in Mumbai and New Delhi dont seem to be reacting yet to this problem which most observers can clearly foresee. Perhaps the politicians will wake up when a sudden steep rise in the prices of commodities hits the headlines in the state or national capitals.
Rohit Chandavarkar is a senior journalist who has worked for 31 years with various leading newspaper brands and television channels in Mumbai and Pune