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Potatoes from Punjab
- Bengal buys crop from outside to bring down price

Sept. 7: The country’s second-largest potato producer is having to tap other states for the crop this year after almost a quarter of its produce was destroyed by disease and hoarders allegedly took tonnes underground.

Bengal, where potato prices have doubled over the past four months (see chart), will buy at least 10,000 tonnes of the crop from Punjab.

The first rake left Jalandhar today and the full consignment will reach in phases over the next few weeks.

The potato from Punjab will be sold through ration shops, an official said in Calcutta.

Potatoes do come to Bengal from Punjab every year, but agriculture marketing minister Mortaza Hossain said this was the first time the government had taken the initiative to bring the vegetable because of the scarcity and the spiralling prices. “This is a first,” he said.

A team from Bengal went to Punjab recently and finali- sed the deal with farmers’ co-operative Markfed. The state had wanted to buy over 20,000 tonnes, but Punjab has so far promised only half that amount.

Supply shouldn’t be a problem because Punjab has had a bumper crop this year, one of that state’s biggest potato farmers, Sukhjit Singh Bhatti, said over the phone from Jalandhar. “We sent around 1,750 tonnes today and the cost comes to roughly Rs 12.50 per kilo.”

Bengal produces about 76 lakh tonnes of potato annually, about 35 per cent of the country’s yield. An agriculture official said the state’s output had plummeted to 58 lakh tonnes this year because of bli- ght, a fungal disease. The he- avy fog in winter meant the disease spread fast across the fields and took a heavy toll.

Even then, Bengal has grown more than the 54 lakh tonnes it eats in a year, but about 8 lakh tonnes of potato is needed as seed for the next crop.

Agriculture minister Naren De alleged that hoarding had made the situation worse. “Dishonest traders are hoarding potato to cash in on the shortage,” he said.

The government had earlier announced a drive against hoarders to bring down the prices, but it fizzled out after a few raids. The farm marketing department now sells subsidised potato at Rs 13 a kilo from select stores, but they are too few and the quality of the potatoes has left many fuming.

Sources in Calcutta said Uttar Pradesh, the highest producer of potatoes, was also likely to be tapped.

No official could readily remember such scarcity in recent years. It is usually the other way round with potato farmers often being driven to suicide because of rock-bottom prices after bumper yields.

Traders in Punjab said rates there were likely to jump because the state was selling potatoes to several others like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Potatoes now sell at Rs 12 to Rs 14 a kilo in Punjab.

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