Potato riot for storage space
|Biswajit Roy and Our Bureau|
Feb. 28: A potato riot broke out today in a north Bengal town after farmers were denied cold-storage space, a perennial problem private investors have promised to address if political hurdles are lifted.
Police fired a round in the air, rained baton blows on 3,000 farmers and used teargas to quell the protest in South Dinajpur. Fifteen farmers and four policemen were injured.
This is the second time this year Bengal police have opened fire, though in the air today, to curb protests involving core constituencies of the Left Front. Last month, five persons were killed when the police fi-red on supporters of the Forward Bloc in Cooch Behar.
The potato clash follows ration riots — all in the run-up to the panchayat election that the CPM itself has described as the “toughest” political battle in years.
The farmers had approa- ched the Gangarampur Agri-cultural Marketing Society, which owns the cold storage, to buy bonds to store potatoes. They were told that the 10,000-tonne capacity had been exceeded two days ago.
“They are trying to create an artificial space crunch so that they can sell the bonds in the black market,” said Robi Sarkar, a farmer.
The bonds are sold for Rs 5 a gunny bag, each containing 50kg of potatoes. In the black market, the price can go up to Rs 25-30, farmer said.
The farmers stormed the cold storage office, tore up documents and smashed computers and furniture, forcing employees to flee.
Society chairman Bipul Adhikari said the district had a bumper crop this year, resulting in the space crunch.
“Yesterday, we had told farmers that we would help them get space in a cold storage in Malda, along with a subsidy from the government, but they refused,” he said.
A small police picket, posted in front of the cold storage after an altercation two days ago, proved inadequate. “We had to resort to a lathicharge and burst teargas shells after repeated requests failed. Stones hurled by the mob injured four of us,” additional SP Imran Wahab said.
The violence was triggered by the apparent crunch in storage space, but both the CPM and the Forward Bloc said this was not true of the potato belt in south Bengal.
Some big potato cultivators are known to block space in cold storages to hoard their produce, forcing small and marginal farmers to sell their crop at throwaway prices. The big farmers then sell the potato at higher prices when supplies dip across the state, according to those familiar with the trade.
The entry of private investment might help create more storage space and modern facilities — the lack of which is considered one of the biggest problems plaguing rural economies.
But the Forward Bloc, which controls the agriculture marketing network in the state, has been opposing the entry of private giants like Reliance.
The society where trouble broke out today is said to be controlled by the CPM.
The party is not opposed to Reliance making investments but the party feels that such investors cannot help beyond a point as they would be handling hardly 2 per cent of the farm produce.
The CPM leader who said this, however, did not explain how the figure was arrived at as no big private investment in farm retail has taken off yet in Bengal.
Another CPM leader said there was excess storage capacity in the state. “Only 80 per cent of storage capacity of the state’s 441 cold storages, including the 57 multi-purpose units, are currently used. So it’s not true that potato-growers in the state are facing an acute space crunch,’’ said Samar Baora, the state secretary of the Krishak Sabha, the CPM’s farmer wing.
Baora is also a member of the state government’s expert committee that monitors potato farming and storage.
But Baora added that private investors would be able to pay farmers better prices and help avoid rotting of farm produce. “We should not unnecessarily panic if Reliance enters the state agri-market, except in paddy and rice,” he said.
Naren Chatterjee, a Forward Bloc leader and the boss of the farm marketing agency, said: “We, too, want joint ventures with the private sector to develop the cold chain. But not big groups like Reliance and Bharti-WalMart.”
Bengal produces around 80 lakh tonnes of potatoes annually and the output is likely to increase to 85-88 lakh tonnes this year.
Around 45 lakh tonnes are consumed in the state, while the rest goes to cold storages, according to Baora.
In recent years, north Bengal had started cultivating this crop and the government had given some incentives. However, in the two Dinajpurs (south, where the clash occurred today, and north) fewer cold storages had come up.