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At 10 paise, tomato turns trash

Hyderabad, Dec. 25: Farmers have painted the 250km Hyderabad-Kurnool highway red. Cartloads of ripe tomatoes litter the stretch, waiting for non-existent buyers.

A bumper yield has brought the crop’s price down to 10 paise a kg in the village mandis of the state’s tomato capitals, Kurnool and Chittoor districts. The lack of cold-storage chains has made matters worse.

As the sixth day of the crisis wore on, farmers this evening dumped their rapidly rotting tomatoes on the road for the birds and animals to feast on.

“For the sixth day, we haven’t found customers either on the highways or the markets,” said Fakruddin, a tomato grower from Kurnool.

Some farmers have opened makeshift highway eateries that offer tomato omelettes, tomato juice and tomato rasam.

“We tried to sell tomato pachadi (pickle) but there were no buyers,” said Padmakka of Alampir, 25km from Kurnool.

Kurnool’s growers can no longer afford the transport cost to Hyderabad, where too the price has fallen to Rs 2 from the normal Rs 5-10 (it’s Rs 15-20 in Calcutta). “At the weekend, we sell at Re 1,” said a city vegetable vendor, Prabhakar Rao.

Chittoor, 600km from Hyderabad, is just 200km from Bangalore where tomato is selling for Rs 5, but transport costs Rs 10 per basket.

“We are leaving the tomato baskets at temple doors and highway bus stands for visitors to take whatever quantity they want and leave whatever money they are pleased to,” said Sesha Reddy of Nandikotkur.

The government is unwilling to help. The last two years, which too saw a tomato glut, the state marketing federation bought large quantities from the farmers but failed to sell them.

Some 6,000 Kurnool farmers demonstrated before panchayati raj minister Diwakar Reddy last week, dumping ripe tomatoes before his car and getting caned by the police.

This year, lured by record off-season prices (Rs 30-40), the farmers doubled the production to 10 quintals per acre. Tomatoes are grown on 60,000 acres in five districts in the state.

At Chittoor, some farmers were able to sell to former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s Heritage retail chain for 50 paise a kg. Heritage is selling tomatoes at Rs 2.50 a kg in Hyderabad and Rs 3.50 at Bangalore.

Hyderabad has 50-odd Reliance Fresh stores but the company buys farm products mainly from Maharashtra.

Ramakrishna Reddy, a leading tomato farmer in Chittoor, said more retail chains would not avert a crisis like this: cold-storage chains and cheap transport would. “The government should provide a special rake to carry tomatoes to Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai.”

The farmers also want food-processing units in tomato-growing districts. The Telugu Desam Party government had planned several tomato-crushing units on the Chittoor-Bangalore highway but none has come up.

“Pepsi and Parle backed out of plans to invest Rs 150 crore on plants near Kuppam and Palamner (in Chittoor),” said Gopal Reddy, a Desam leader from the district.

With another month left of the tomato season, the farmers are desperate. “If this continues for another week, we’ll be doomed,” said Narasamma in Pileru.

She has grown tomatoes on five acres, helped by a bore-well she dug recently. “I can’t repay the loan I took for the bore-well if tomato prices don’t rise to at least Rs 5,” she said.

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