G. Ram Mohan writes:
A feeling of let-down is palpable in the voice of B. Vasudeva Reddy, a mango farmer, from Abbireddivuru village of Poothalapattu mandal of Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. The year 2021 was the fourth straight year of losses for mango farmers of this region for myriad reasons. “Having planted mango trees in my 12-acre (4.86 hectares) plot over the last 25 years, goaded by the government to take up horticulture as a panacea and a way out of the farm crisis, I have now no other source of income.,” he says.
Over the years, owing to the impetus given to horticulture in the Rayalaseema region, a perennially drought prone rain shadow region in Andhra Pradesh, the acreage under mangoes has grown manifold.
Compared to investment of Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakhs per acre for regular crops like tomato, the investment is less for mango crop. Dwelling on the reasons for increased acreage under mango, K. Kumar Reddy, an All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) leader said, “Lack of remunerative prices, increased cost of inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and absentee ownership (with children of many farmers shifting to other professions) which has led to an increased reliance on farm labour, have all resulted in a lack of profits for farmers in other crops, he says.
All has not been well for the growers of mangoes in even in the past few years.
Farmers say the growth in horticulture in Rayalaseema region, is courtesy of the push given by the government in its endeavour to reduce water-intensive crops like sugarcane and paddy in the drought prone region. The area under mangoes hence continues to grow as the crop needs less water. The sugarcane crop in the district has halved over the years owing to a crisis in the sugar industry.
The mango crop now covers nearly 1,12,000 hectares in the district. Of these, 26,000 hectares have table variety mango trees, while 86,000 acres have the Totapuri mango variety, which is mainly used by the industry to make pulp. The industry is concentrated in Chittoor district and serves the entire state along with farmers in parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Erratic rains deepen farmers woes
Listing the reasons for the fall in mango production and losses for farmers in 2021, B. Sreenivasulu, deputy director, horticulture, Chitoor district, Andhra Pradesh, says, “Irregular and uneven distribution of rains led to irregular flowering of plants. This creates problems for farmers in managing pests. This is natural to an extent but the phenomenon was more rampant this time due to climatic changes.”
M. Prabhakar Reddy, a farmer from Madithativaripalle village of Nerabilu mandal, says, “I had to spray pesticides five times this year, normally we would do it twice. One round of spraying costs us Rs 30,000 on our 10-acre mango farm.”
All has not been well for the growers of mangoes in even in the past few years. In 2018, when there was a bumper crop of mangoes the industry refused to pay more than Rs 5 and owing to pressure from farmers the then TDP government announced an incentive of Rs 2.50 to be paid into the accounts of farmers. Media reports had then said the factories reduced the price commensurately and paid less than Rs 5 taking full advantage of the farmers desperation to sell the perishable crop, says farm leader M. Gopal Reddy, the president of the Andhra Pradesh chapter of the Federation of Farmers’ Associations. The year 2019 also did not go well for farmers as the crop was much smaller, leading to lower income though prices rose owing to non-availability of the fruit. The year 2020 also saw a much smaller crop the fruit owing to climatic factors, which led to less flowering of the mango plants.
Still, farmers were better off in the 2020 mango season as the lockdown had been lifted and relaxed by the time the crop was to be processed. The impact in 2021 was far worse owing to the human tragedy of Covid-19 during the second wave, which peaked May-June across the country. This affected movement of traders within the district and even from North India.
The entry of corporates as the buyers of farm produce...doesn’t seem to have benefitted the mango farmers in Chittoor.
But farmers like P. Mastan from Damalacheruvu village and mandal say, the fall in mango prices in 2021 owing to the lockdown is only part of the problem. “The Totapuri variety of mango fruit, a major part of which is processed normally, does not need traders from outside the district. The industry can make pulp, preserve and sell it even after more than a year. Hence the explanation of lack of buyers from the North India for lack of prices, does not wash.”
V. Chinnabba, from Viduda Palle village in Penumuru mandal, , a farmer who owns two acres, says, “Factories refused to take my 1.5 tonnes of mangoes. The produce last year sold for Rs 15 per kg but there were no takers for them for even Rs 6 this summer.” “Contacts and lobbying play a role and small farmers like us have a tougher time,” he says waiting for takers for his fruits at the Tiruchanoor market yard, on the fringes of Tirupati.
The state does not have any support mechanism for perishable food products like fruits, vegetables and milk etc. even during lockdown. The rates fetched by farmers ranged between Rs 6 to Rs 9 per kilogram for Totapuri mangoes. At least Rs 10 or 11 would be decent enough for farmers, Mr Prabhakar Reddy says.
Mandis are passe, post entry of corporates
With the pulp industry turning out to be biggest consumers of the mango crop, pricing power has shifted from the hands of the currently maligned agriculture produce market committees (APMCs) into the hands of corporates. The traders buy and sell based on rates decided for the day by the factories and thus basically serve as a collection mechanism for them. “Of the 6.2 lakh metric tonnes of mango crop in the district, factories consumed 4.37 lakh metric tonnes, this year,” says Mr Sreenivasulu.
Politicians of all hues are alleged to be among those who own the pulp-processing units. The political nexus with the pulp industry lobby is present and this prevents the government’s from taking their side, farmers rue. Though similar mango pulp making units exist across the country the cluster of units in Chittoor district is the biggest in the country.
The factories have suppliers at the mandi. They fix the rate and seek stock through them at a price. Our income has taken a hit, says N.S. Yasanalla, president of Damalacheruvu Mango Mandi Traders Association.
Mr. Yasanalla adds, “Suppliers as an intermediary is a result of the existence of the pulp industry now. Right now, the companies buy fruit at anywhere between Rs 8 a kg to Rs 24 a kg depending on the supply and their requirement.” This affects the farmers as many of them don’t have any other source of livelihood. The companies buy at higher price at the end of season and showcase it as the price they pay and lobby for a higher price for the pulp produced by them, he adds.
“We need to take a certificate from the Mandal Revenue Officer MRO or horticulture officer certifying that the fruit has been plucked from his or her garden. The vehicles were illegally stopped at border posts to take bribes. Now this has been eased. But farmers can’t bear the risk and take the produce to distant places and sell, Mr Gopal Reddy says expressing scepticism about the claims of the centre on the benefits of the new farm laws.
The entry of corporates as the buyers of farm produce, in this case mangoes, overtaking the traditional mandi system, doesn’t seem to have benefitted the mango farmers in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Claims to the contrary should be taken with a pinch of salt, says Mr Kumar Reddy, of the AIKS.
G. Ram Mohan is a freelance journalist based in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. He can be reached on Twitter at @mnirm