Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi may have asked states ruled by the party to allow farmers to sell their produce to consumers, bypassing the agriculture produce market committees (APMC) to stem price rise. But Maharashtra’s poor record of implementing agriculture marketing reforms shows that entrenched lobbies comprising politicians, traders and commission agents cannot be put down easily.
Ask Dr Giridhar Patil, an ex-leader of liberal farmer leader Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana. After Maharashtra amended the APMC act in 2006, Nashik-based Patil, now with the Aam Aadmi Party, and his associates started a company to market agriculture produce directly to consumers in Mumbai, but the effort failed after intimidation by vested interests.
“This statement is an election strategy,” charged Patil, adding that politics between the NCP, which controls most of the 305 APMCs in Maharashtra, and the Congress, which is in charge of the agriculture marketing department, was also responsible for the delay in reforms.
He pointed to farmers who get just around 25% of the retail price being shortchanged and middlemen and traders making windfall gains while consumers paid hefty amounts for fruits and vegetables. “Now, competition is missing, only few traders enjoy a monopoly,” said Patil.
“This fruit and vegetable mafia earns crores daily,” said Ravi Devang of Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana. “The laws are so strange that farmers cannot sell their produce on the streets,” he pointed out.
Marketing department officials say the APMCs and 603 sub-markets have an annual turnover of Rs 37,094 crore, with the Navi Mumbai APMC accounting for a major chunk. But, sources admit that the actual off-the-books turnover may be huge. Farmers groups say exploitation of agriculturists by traders rings which rig prices and use faulty weights and by organised groups like loaders, is rampant, leading to a minimum 30% difference between wholesale and retail prices. This will also ensure lower wastage.
Maharashtra has just around 47 operational direct marketing licenses with a turnover of around Rs900 crore last year and 20 private APMCs with a Rs 2055.27 crore turnover.
A senior state government official said the APMC act aimed at direct marketing and private markets, contract farming, public private partnership and single license for the entire state.
“The total impact (of these initiatives) has not been more than 10% of the market size,” he admitted, noting that major private sector players were not coming in a big way. “Once, fruits and vegetables are delisted, traders will not require any licences,” he said.
Agriculture and marketing minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil said that the state had begun the process to delist 41 commodities. He added that they had also set up 303 fair price vegetable shops in Mumbai and Pune. “This is the first step of the government to help farmers sell their produce directly.”
Vikhe added that action had been taken against some direct marketing licensees, found to be acting as commission agents.
However, Balasaheb Solaskar, chairman, Navi Mumbai APMC, said bypassing the APMCs would not provide any major succour to farmers. “Instead, the government must declare remunerative prices for farmers,” he added.