How Punjab can deal with its hot potato

Despite favourable climatic conditions, the spud is a difficult crop to grow. Add to it the government’s indifference and market fluctuations, the potato kings of Punjab are having a tough time.
More than potatoes, it's the seed that Punjab is famous for.
More than potatoes, it's the seed that Punjab is famous for.

Till about two months ago, Punjab was all about potatoes and politics. A surplus production and market crash had farmers dumping their produce on the roads. At the same time, the results of the State Assembly elections were keenly awaited. While Punjab survived the prediction of a hung Assembly, the fate of farmers still hangs in balance. Market crashes, low international trade and climate change are all coming together to spin a tale that’s currently beyond comprehension. 

A break from wheat and rice

Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Bihar produce most of India’s potatoes, but almost all of them procure seeds from Punjab. A national study conducted in 1999 estimated that not even one fourth of the potato farmers in India were able to obtain healthy seed as and when needed to replace their debilitated stocks. 

States like West Bengal and Karnataka experience higher degree of seed degeneration due to viral infection. Punjab, especially its northern Doaba region, enjoys optimal climate and soil combination for potato crop to grow healthy with lower rates of infection. 

Since the harvest in Punjab is done much in advance to plantations in eastern and southern states, everything sits well. Punjab further played on this geographical benefit by adopting new techniques to reduce the chances of infections, thus meeting around 63 percent of the seed demand of the country today. 

From 9,000 hectare in 1960, the area under potatoes in Punjab rose to 64,000 hectares by the year 2000, biggest jump after rice and wheat. This is one of the reasons why potato is also seen as a possible alternative to the wheat-rice cycle. Another reason is the highest water productivity in terms of yield and nutritional content among all major crops. Since diversification in Punjab is talked about in the context of depleting water resources and failing monsoon, potato scores high.

Data from the Department of Agricultural Research and Education tells us that every square metre of water can give 9.5 kg of potato as compared to 0.86 kg of wheat and 0.71 kg of rice. Potato also gives highest energy at 5,626 kilocalories (kcal) per m3 of water compared to 2,279 kcal from wheat and 1,989 kcal from rice. But it’s still far from being a valid alternative to the wheat-rice cycle.

 

The market impact

Unlike wheat and rice, the spud is not procured by government agencies thus leaving the farmers to market fluctuations and events like demonetisation. “When demonetisation happened in early November, it was the peak season for us to sell the seeds, but the traders from other states backed out. The cold storages were already full from the surplus of previous season so the farmers used the new seeds on their own farms further adding to the glut and the market crash,” says Jaspreet Singh of Jalandhar Potato Growers’ Association.

P. S. Rangi, former senior economist (marketing) with Punjab Agricultural University, however, believes more than demonetisation, it was the natural economic cycle that was to blame for the low prices. “It’s a cycle that repeats every three to four years. A good price of potato leads to more farmers planting it which results in surplus production and price crash. It’s a simple game of demand and supply,” he says.

Jagat Prakash Singh Gill, the secretary of the Jalandhar Potato Growers’ Association, differs. “It’s the failure of the agriculture department which leads to such a gap in demand and supply. Extension officers are supposed to guide the farmers on what to plant because they know the macro situation and how the markets would behave. But there’s little guidance on this front and farmers are left to follow the usual trend,” he says.

Not an easy job

Potato is not an easy crop. Punjab is known to have big farmers of potato called ‘Potato Kings’ as they grow the tuber on thousands of acres land, both owned and leased. “These farmers have a good combination of skills, entrepreneurship and machinery to get a high yield, but it’s not the same for a small farmer. Compare this to the cultivation of wheat and rice where even a simple farmer can get production levels comparable to someone who has the best machines. Though it’s a profitable crop most of the time, not everyone can reap those benefits from potato due to high input cost and the management skills required,” says Dr H.S. Shergill who has studied the socio-economic aspects of paddy cultivation in Punjab. 

The fact that even the big farmers suffered a big jolt this year adds another dimension to the debate. In mid-2016, the union government had imposed a restriction on the export of potatoes below the price of Rs 24 per kg. This minimum export price (MEP) is imposed to control the price of potato in domestic market by curtailing exports. By the time MEP was removed, it was too late.

Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha, one of the biggest farmers who scaled up potato cultivation in Punjab, calls the MEP illogical. “India has never exported even 1 percent of the total annual production though our harvesting period matches the time when Europe is in dire need of fresh potatoes. Our main market so far has been Russia because it doesn’t get help from the West due to certain sanctions. But even Pakistan exports more potatoes to Russia than we do. We lack the government support to compete,” he says. 

 

What the future holds

The need for support to potato production gains weight in view of climate change studies. Rising temperature may not bode well for potatoes, especially in West Bengal and the southern states which may experience a drop of two-55 percent by the year 2050. But the northern belt comprising Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh may see a rise of four to seven percent in production, says a study by the Central Potato Research Institute. 

“Currently, the winters are severe in Punjab and Haryana and western UP which leads to frosting in December and January. In the future, warming may ease the chilling conditions to favour potato productivity, while in the other regions, warming may prove detrimental,” the study says.

 

In Punjab and western UP, the delayed planting by five-10 days may increase or sustain the tuber yield while in eastern UP and Bihar, delayed plantation may sustain production with losses of up to 10 percent. West Bengal may see a loss of four to eight percent but south India may register greater yield losses. The Hassan region of Karnataka may register a loss of up to 99 percent in production. For these areas, developing heat-tolerant varieties and adaptation measures like mulching may help reduce losses. This is not good news for Punjab because more than its own production, it’s dependent on the prosperity of other states through the sale of seeds.

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