SOLAN: The vegetable bowl of Himachal Pradesh is brimming with restlessness. Cutting across political affiliations, vegetable producers here are organising themselves for much needed interventions to help them sustain their livelihood. They want the processes of procurement and marketing to be streamlined and ironed out at the earliest. Promises have been coming their way but there is nothing much visible on the ground yet.

Pointing to the economic slowdown, farmers here convey that given the high unemployment confronting society at large, they will have to fall back on agriculture to sustain themselves, and their children will have to strive for profitable vegetable production. They say the interventions they are demanding can be the first step towards the government’s tall claims of doubling farmers’ income in three years.

One needs first to understand the importance of vegetables for this hill state. According to Kisan Sabha leader Kuldeep Tanwar, “Himachal is a state where 90 percent of the population is rural, with 9,62,000 land holdings. There are around seven lakh vegetable producers in different agro-climatic zones and they have surpassed fruit production of 12 lakh tonnes and foodgrains production of around 15 lakh tonnes.

“The vegetable farmers are proud producers of more than 17.5 tonnes of which tomato alone accounts for 5 lakh tonnes. Of this, 50 percent is grown in Solan district alone. Tomato is the second most produced crop in the state after apple.”

Nowadays tomato season is in full swing, and it is the producers of this ‘red gold’ who are giving voice to vegetable producers as a whole. A meeting was recently held of all the stakeholders including farmers, Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees, commission agents and mandi officials, in Solan on June 28.

There the chairman of the State Agricultural Marketing Board, Baldev Bhandari called for immediate steps to look into the demands of the farmers. This was followed by a mahapanchayat of farmers on the rooftop of a private building on a rainy Friday morning.

The prime demand of the vegetable producers is that disparities in the weighing of produce during auctions must be sorted out. They want procurement to be done after weighing the vegetables brought to the mandi, instead of procuring through crates at various places. They say even these crates are not standardised.

At the first meeting several young farmers like Mohit Kumar pointed out, “If capsicum can be procured by weight why can’t the same be done for tomatoes? The produce also needs to be procured grade wise.”

Some farmers have also been alleging that at certain places, procurement is done in opaque ways like covering hands with handkerchiefs and deciding in codes. They want the process to be totally transparent and under the supervision of auction recorders.

Another key issue raised by farmers at the first meeting has to do with the payments they are being compelled to make, over and above the specified marketing fee and deductions in the form of their produce with regard to the weight of the sacks and crates. They want the procurement bye-laws properly displayed at each and every mandi in the state.

The commission agents have a different take on these issues. Denying that the auctions are carried out in a non-transparent manner, Vijay Sood told The Citizen, “Tomatoes cannot be procured according to weight because of the variation in varieties and the crate itself being a standard mode of weighing. It is impossible to weigh the one-lakh plus crates that arrive daily in the mandi during the season. If this is done the mandi will collapse.”

Ironically, the mandi at Solan has won awards for the central government’s e-marketing initiative while the majority of farmers here still don’t understand it.

“It was in 2014 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about addressing the concerns of Himachal’s vegetable farmers right here at the Thodo Grounds in Solan. But nothing has come as yet from either the centre or the state.

“Vegetables need to be covered under the Minimum Support Price mechanism recommended by the Swaminathan Commission. There is a distinct problem with vegetables in Himachal that has led to stepmotherly treatment of this crop. In 1970 it was categorised under agriculture, not horticulture as is the case in the other states of the country. This has kept it outside the purview of the National Horticulture Mission. There needs to be a special package for vegetables,” said Tanwar.

During the mahapanchayat on Friday, Ramesh Verma from Sirmaur said “the time has come that we seek controlled atmosphere storage facilities at the mandis in the state.”

The farmers are annoyed that even in places like Solan, where a cold storage facility exists in the mandi, it is lying non-functional. Producers from Solan along with those from parts of Sirmaur, Mandi and Shimla districts come here to sell their vegetables.

There is also heavy resentment over the facilities meant for farmers at different mandis being utilised for other purposes. They point out that if they were provided with even 10 percent of the storage facility for their crop, the problem of collapsing rates would be over.

Another important demand is that the government establish food processing units, so that produce like capsicum, tomato, garlic and ginger can be preserved in different forms and the farmers do not lose out on their labour.

Farmers here are very clear that no government in times to come can ignore this sector of the economy, which alone has the potential to overcome the recession and lopsided economic decisions that are starting to show their impact in a brutal manner.

They are convinced that initiatives like the Kisan Samman Yojana are nothing but a result of their united shows of strength in Mumbai and Delhi last year.

They want to organise themselves on the lines of workers in the organised sector to compel the government to come up with the required interventions.