It is the season of 'Red Gold' as tomatoes are referred to in the producing areas of Himachal Pradesh (HP). Yet the growers are anxious as the prices have crashed and there is no surety that the returns will pick up soon.

While a local cash crop like tomato may not be large scale, in comparison to the other crops across India, it is reflective of the deepening agricultural crisis in the country. Government intervention is needed to save the growers. This again brings into focus the demand for a minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce.

According to sources more farmers in HP are now growing tomatoes in areas where it was not grown before. This is despite the fact that price crashes are a frequent phenomenon, and tomato cultivation requires a lot of labour. The questions that arise are, why are farmers inclined to cultivate the crop at all? And secondly, why have the prices crashed in the first place?

"Tomato cultivation is a gamble undertaken by farmers. It is the most promising cash crop at this point of the year. At this time every farmer has a tomato crop in areas where it can be grown," explained Manoj Verma of Dharja village in Solan district who is also a Zilla Parishad member.

"In May and early June the crop that was cultivated along the rivers and streams like Gambar, Ashwini Khud and the Giri had fetched a rate up to Rs 1500 per 25 Kg crate in the markets in Delhi. This attracted tomato cultivators from across the country to rush their produce to Delhi in the hope of getting good returns. This caused a glut that eventually led to the price crash of the high quality tomatoes grown on hill slopes," he added.

A 25-kg crate of local produce is presently selling at Rs 300. The situation is being described by the growers as 'alarming'. This rate does not even cover the production cost.

Kisan Sabha leader Dr Kuldeep Tanwar said that Himachal Pradesh produces around five lakh metric tonnes of tomatoes. Of this, 50 % is grown in Kandaghat, Dharampur, Arki and Kunihar areas of Solan district. Tomato has historically been a commercial crop in the district since the 1950s before its spread to other districts of the state.

"The farmer is often compelled to go in for distress sale of the highly perishable crop. There is a need for controlled atmosphere storage in the mandis. This will enable the farmers to hold on to their produce for a day or so, and they can get better returns," he said.

"The returns from the crop have a direct bearing on the local economy. Farmers often take loans ahead of the season. The returns have a bearing on the festival season that follows. Good returns means more purchasing by the farmers, and puts more money in circulation. Traditionally the system functions on the pattern of taking early loans and paying back later after the harvest," explained Arki MLA Sanjay Awasthi.

So where does the solution lie? Verma, Tanwar and Awasthi are unanimous in the view that MSP guarantee is a must for the crop. There is a need to set up storage facilities in the mandis. And there is a need for value addition by setting up food processing units so that ripe or unsold produce can be utilised with sure returns to the farmers. Tomato juice and puree are some of the products that can be made in such units. But successive governments have failed on all these fronts.

"We have been getting assurances for the last 15 years but nothing has been done till now," said out Tanwar. Awasthi said that, "till there is value addition to the crop, the farmers will continue to suffer."

"The Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) collects market fees that run into crores. And where is the money utilised? It is utilised in jobs other than the essential ones like setting up controlled atmosphere storage infrastructure, logistics, developing collection centres and improving technical knowhow of the farmers," added Verma.

"Lack of political will that is compounded by bureaucrats who have little knowledge of the ground realities. Let me give an example. A compost unit near the national highway that was razed because of an expansion project some years ago has not been re-established. It is the farmer who is at a loss on all fronts," he added.

The farmers also have to contend with the menace of spurious seeds, ever escalating input costs and also erratic supplies of urea. The MSP guarantee for all agricultural produce, is the most important intervention sought by farmers. Farmers say that the labour of their family, along with the land resource are not even acknowledged.

But things don't seem to be moving ahead on the MSP front, a promise that was made by the Central government when the farmers' agitation was called off last year. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) that had led the farmers' movement rejected the committee formed by the centre on MSP. It has decided not to nominate its representatives in the committee.

A statement by SKM said that it had made public its doubts about any such committee ever since it was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with the repeal of the three 'black laws' on November 19. In March, when the government had asked the Morcha for names for this committee, the SKM had sought certain clarifications from the government about the committee which it claims to have never got.

On July 3, the SKM unanimously decided, "unless the government clarifies the jurisdiction and terms of reference of this committee, there is no point in nominating a representative."

The SKM stated, "all the doubts of Samyukta Kisan Morcha about this committee have come true with the notification issued by the government."

It has contended that by announcing this committee before the Parliament session, the government has tried to complete the paperwork. But the notification makes clear the 'ill-intentions' of the government behind this committee and its irrelevance.

The SKM stated, "the chairman of the committee is former agriculture secretary Sanjay Agarwal who drafted all three anti-farmer laws. He is accompanied by Ramesh Chand, a member of NITI Aayog, who was the main advocate of these three laws. As experts, it is the economists who have been against giving legal status to MSP. Space has been left for three representatives of SKM in the committee. But in other places, in the name of farmer leaders, the government has placed its five loyalists who openly advocated all the three anti-farmer laws. These five people spoke openly in favour of all three anti-farmer laws and most of them have been spewing venom against the farmers' movement.

"There is no mention of making a law on MSP in the agenda of the committee. That is, this question will not be placed before the committee. Some items have been put in the agenda on which the government committee is already established. In the name of reforms in agricultural marketing, an item has been inserted through which the government can try to bring back three black laws."