Potato is cultivated on almost four lakh acres of land in West Bengal between December and March, with about 10 lakh farmers growing the crop.

With West Bengal in the midst of a polarising election season, farmers in the state’s potato belt of Hooghly and parts of Purba Bardhaman say their cries for help are getting drowned out in the din of a high-decibel poll campaign.

Potato is cultivated on almost four lakh acres of land in West Bengal between December and March, with about 10 lakh farmers growing the crop. The farmers say they are staring at huge losses this year after failing to recoup the cost of production, and blame middlemen for exacerbating their woes. They want the government to increase the Minimum Support Price (MSP) to help them recover their losses.

Sanatan Malik is a farmer from Kamarkundu in Hooghly district’s Singur area. He participated in the Singur anti-land acquisition movement of 2006 that laid the foundation of the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) rise to power and was even jailed during the demonstrations. But now he wants industries in the area, unable to keep pace with the rising cost of producing potatoes.

“In a year, the price of potato seeds increased at least thrice. Cultivators in Bengal prefer seeds from Punjab because they are disease-free and offer a better yield. It was Rs 3,000 per quintal last year, this year it increased to Rs 5,000 per quintal. The price of fertilisers has also increased thrice in the last 10 years,” he says.

Malik points out that last year potatoes were sold for Rs 1,200 per quintal because of low production. But this season the price has dropped to Rs 540 per quintal because of a production glut.

“We do not know how we will make up our losses by the end of this year. Now, the potato farmers are waiting for a high price. For now, they have loaded their produce in cold storages and received bonds. If the price increases, then we will sell this bond at a higher rate. But this year we think the price will not increase. So, we have to sell potatoes at a huge loss,” he adds.

In Chinsurah, Dilip Moyra dismisses the state government’s claim that farmers nowadays get a better price for their produce. “That is not true. After some time, we will have to sell our bonds at a lower rate to the middlemen and they will keep these potatoes in cold storages. They control the price in the market,” he adds.

Malik blames a nexus of cold-storage owners, middlemen (popularly called “phorey”) and local TMC leaders for the woes of potato cultivators. He adds, “We sold potatoes at a high price last year but most of the profit went to ‘phoreys’ and cold storage owners who hoarded the crop to increase its price. They created an artificial shortage and the retail price increased to Rs 60 per kg. We sold potatoes for maximum Rs 12 per kg price. They have a nexus with the local ruling party leaders.”

Middlemen and cold storage owners, however, dismiss the allegation of hoarding. “We are not earning any profit. We get potatoes from cold storages, and then we package them. We lose money on every bag as transportation cost also increased due to rising diesel price. So, we never got a huge profit after selling the potatoes,” says Barun Pal, a “phorey”.

Pragatishil Aloo Byabshayee Samiti (Progressive Potato Traders’ Association) general secretary Lalu Mukherjee explains that the crop’s price last year shot up as demand exceeded supply. “The annual demand for potato in our state used to be 65 lakh metric tonnes on average. Last year, 57 lakh metric tonnes entered cold storages. Naturally, demand was more than supply and the price of potato increased and farmers also got a better price.”

Mukherjee says this season 72 lakh metric tonnes have been moved to cold storages. He adds, “So, it is expected that the farmer has to sell at a low price this year. This year, Uttar Pradesh and other states have produced a lot. If other states that earlier did not have much production generate demand, then only we will be able to sell all the potatoes.”

The farmers want the government to increase the MSP of Rs 250 per bag. Says Malik, “During the Left regime, the government used to give subsidy but this government never gave that.”

District CPM leader Abdul High criticises the TMC government’s “complete failure” to protect the cultivators who, he claims, “will give their answer to the ruling party through EVMs”.

The Left party’s candidate in Singur, Srijan Bhattacharya, claims the CPI(M) is the only party to mention in its manifesto the demand to increase the MSP of potato. “Without subsidy, farmers have no way to make up their losses this year,” he adds.

According to BJP leader Samik Bhattacharya, the potato farmers are suffering a devastating loss of almost Rs 6,000 per bigha. He adds, “The state government could have subsidised them to improve their situation. But, it did nothing.”

TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee, who represents Serampore in the Lok Sabha, however, dismisses the criticism directed at his party and points out Chief Mamata Banerjee’s role in fighting three controversial farm laws pushed through Parliament by the BJP-led Centre last September.

“During the Left Front regime, only 12,000 metric tonnes of food grain could be stored. Within 10 years, the capacity has increased to 95,000 metric tonnes. We also fixed the price of potato, and this year after returning to power, the Mamata Banerjee government will again give subsidy to the farmers,” he adds.

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