No buyers, shut units: How COVID-19 hit farmers in Bengal’s pineapple hub

Several in Bidhannagar in Bengal’s Darjeeling district resorting to distress sales to pay off loans; others migrating to other cities to work as labourers  

By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Monday 05 July 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in losses for the pineapple growers of Bidhannagar, West Bengal. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and ensuing restrictions have now affected pineapple growers in West Bengal.

Agriculture was one of the bright spots in India’s otherwise languishing economy last year. In 2021, however, back-to-back lockdowns have caught up with the country’s farmers.Reports of crops being affeted and sub par prices have started trickling in from several regions.

In Bidhannagar (Darjeeling district), several farmers said they have pulled out of growing pineapples, a fruit that otherwise fetched a handsome price. Many said they contemplate migrating to cities to work as labourers.

Many have been compelled to resort to distress sales to pay off loans from lenders. 

Md Najrul, a pineapple grower for the last two decades in the district, would make profits enough to run his family — until the pandemic struck. The 50-year-old said the demand for the fruit has diminished, threatening his livelihood.

Najrul claimed he has to dispose of the fruit at paltry Re 1 per pineapple in the absence of buyers. “Pandemic-related restrictions have wiped off our business. We mostly depend on the Azadpur fruit market in Delhi to sell our produce, but the markets are either shut or open for a few hours only,” he said.

As many as 70,000 farmers practice pineapple farming in Bidhannagar, considered one of the major hubs of pineapple production in India.

The annual production of pineapple is around 0.6 million tonnes in Bidhannagar. It is cultivated on 20,000 hectares land. The region contributes to around 80 per cent of West Bengal’s total output, which is nearly half the country’s 2 million MT yield. The fruit takes 18 months to grow.

Md Najrul said the pandemic has wiped out his business. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

“It costs us Rs 10 to grow one pineapple; the cost of fertilizers has gone up. We need labourers to pluck the fruit from the fields and then transport them to wholesale buyers. But the demand has plummeted and we are forced to dispose it all,” said Md Shakirul (32), a pineapple grower in Bidhannagar.

Md Ismail, another farmer, said they took loans from private money lenders at a steep rate of interest. “The situation has been precarious for two years now,” he said.

No buyers during the pandemic

Streets of Bidhannagar buzz with pineapple traders trying to sell the fruit to wholesalers. But there are no buyers.

“We depend on Delhi to sell off our fruit. Earlier, we would dispatch 25-30 trucks every day; each truck would carry at least 15 tonnes of pineapples. Now we need only five such vehicles,” said Nikhil Das, a wholesaler fruit trader in Bidhannagar.

Experts said a lack of adequate facilities has aggravated the plight of farmers. There is no cold storage unit either, said Amrendra Kumar Pandey, technical officer at Centre for Floriculture and Agri-Business Management (COFAM), University of North Bengal.

No processing units

Bidhannagar doesn’t have a single fruit processing unit. Locals said the area had at least 26 processing units till the 1990s, but all were shut down over the next two decades. The last one downed its shutters in 2017.

The closure of the factories was a major blow to the farmers. This prompted them to depend on traders, who give them arbitrary rate that is lower than the production cost in the absence of Minimum Support Price (MSP), Mandal said.

“We repeatedly demanded that the MSP be fixed, but to no avail,” he added. 

The erstwhile Left front government had set-up a multi-purpose market for pineapple farmers in Bidhannagar that had a cold storage and rooms for the buyer, among other facilities.

But the market has been gathering dust for over a decade. A trader, who did not wished to be named, said:

“The trader shops across the streets are run in nexus with the police and politicians who charge a hefty rent. But shifting to the market would have spoiled their income. The local politicians create obstacles in the functioning of the market. The market has been lying shut since construction.”

Leaders from the Trinamool Congress, however, rubbished the allegations.

“The rise in fuel prices has reduced the movement of vehicles as profits have come down drastically. Our (state) government has been trying its best to help the farmers. The multi-purpose market has been closed as the road leading to it is narrow and doesn’t allow movement of vehicles. We are trying to widen the road before opening the market,” said Kajal Ghosh, a local Trinamool leader.

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