Millennium Post

Tomato in trouble!

This year witnessed an unprecedented 54 per cent dip in tomato wholesale prices – Maharashtra was the worst-affected, followed by Gujarat and Karnataka

Farmers growing tomatoes need to think twice before sowing their seeds since the wholesale price of tomatoes has crashed by nearly 54 per cent (on an average) between November 2017 and 2018. With nearly a 78 per cent dip, Maharashtra recorded the maximum drop in tomato prices followed by Gujarat (73.38 per cent), Karnataka (70.53 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (69 per cent) and Jammu & Kashmir (67.21 per cent).

Cheapest & costliest months

The average price of tomatoes in the past five years (2014-15 to 2017-18) has come down by nearly 15 per cent. This dip was mostly seen in August (80 per cent) and September (54 per cent). While tomatoes remained cheaper in mandis in seven months during the year, there was a significant rise (13 to 27 per cent) in May and June.

Even as consumers did not benefit much from this price variation, the farmers suffered the most from the crashing prices of their vegetable produce. This is evident since most of the farmer protests during 2018 were around perishable produce like tomatoes and other such crops.

The production of tomato during the year 2017-18 is estimated to be about 6.4 per cent lower as compared to the previous year. However, when compared with the past five years' average production, it is 4.4 per cent higher. Also, tomato production went up by more than 20 per cent from 2014-15 to 2016-17 (from 16.38 million tonnes to 20. 70 tonnes).

In the case of bumper production, farmers flood the markets with their produce. But the story would have been different if the post-harvest infrastructure was well-developed to provide farmers with the facility to hold their produce and sell in moderate quantities rather than overcrowding the market with their produce. Farmers do not have the luxury of time to be kept at convenience and are forced to resort to a push mode into the market. It is further hastened because of reduced saleable timelines, and this frequently leads to distress selling or roadside discards.

Compared to farm production at the start of the 1960s, India now harvests 40 times as many tomatoes. But despite being the leading producer of such perishable produce, the central government and states have been slow to realise and react to the importance of post-harvest management practices.

Limits of cold storage

As on March 31, 2017, there were 7,645 cold storages with a capacity of 34.95 million MT in the country, which are only able to store about 11 per cent of the country's total perishable produce. Of this, 75 per cent of storage facilities are meant for potatoes. Only 25 per cent is available for other produce (including tomatoes).

Market connectivity for short life horticultural produce is a vital missing link, says Ashok Dalwai, additional secretary, agriculture ministry, while recommending the building and promotion of aggregation units like modern pack-houses and pooling points at villages with transport links.

Improving rail connectivity

According to the National Centre for Cold-chain Development, the movement of food grains has regularly used railways wagons, but nearly 97 per cent of perishable produce is transported on roads.

Perishable crops like tomatoes can benefit greatly from reduced transit time in market linkage and better travel conditions on rail modes. But they are not able to take due advantage of the current rail system. It is time that they also shift to railways.

Recommendations of Dalwai committee

Like onions, tomatoes are also politically sensitive crops. So, after remaining in power for four years, in February 2018, the government announced a new scheme 'Operation Greens' for integrated development of the tomato, onion and potato (TOP) value chain. The key objective of the scheme is to stabilise the price for both – producers and consumers – by proper production planning in the TOP clusters. The Rs 500-crore scheme has finally been approved on November 12, 2018.

While implementing it, the government should consider recommendations of the Dalwai committee for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the 'Market Intervention Scheme', a price support scheme in operation for perishable commodities.

The committee has said that the agriculture sector as a profession will become wholesome when the transition happens from a mere Green Revolution to a Farmers' Income Revolution or Income Revolution for the farmers. Potatoes too had a price crash. The average price of potatoes in the past five years has crashed by nearly 33 per cent. The dip was the most in October (115 per cent) and January (61 per cent).

So, even as the central government plans to woo farmers ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, tomatoes and potatoes will play a bigger and more decisive role this time than mere strategies.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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