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Chill of hike freeze
- Potato cold storage owners threaten to shut shop

Calcutta, Nov. 16: Owners of potato cold storages today announced a day’s shutdown on Monday and threatened a longer agitation to protest the Mamata Banerjee government’s refusal to allow a rent hike.

Many officials termed this as another instance of the “populist” government’s reluctance to raise tariffs.

“The rent is our only source of income. Overhead costs have spiralled in the past two years. But the government is not allowing us to increase the rent. We are incurring heavy losses,” said Rampada Pal, the chairman of a joint committee under which cold storage unions have united to protest the government’s refusal to increase rent.

“Monday’s cessation of work is just symbolic. If this continues, we will be forced to close down our operations to cut losses,” he added.

“Potato cold storage charges are Rs 101 per quintal in south Bengal and Rs 109 per quintal in north Bengal. In other states, the rates are between Rs 150 and Rs 200 per quintal. We want the government to raise charges to Rs 150 in south Bengal and Rs 158 in north Bengal,” Pal said.

The committee submitted a deputation to agriculture marketing minister Arup Roy on Wednesday after repeated pleas to consider the problem fell on deaf ears.

Roy said he was aware of the situation. “The matter is being considered and something will be done soon.”

Since the new government came to power, it has not allowed the 425 facilities specialising in potato storage to charge more for their services.

Cold storage units provide “crucial backup” in the production and trade of potato by absorbing the surplus harvest between January and March every year, officials in the agricultural marketing department said. Approximately, a third of the state’s total potato output of around 85 lakh tonnes is stored in the facilities in the last quarter of every financial year for round-the-year sale. The units also store seeds.

The 425 units handle around 122 tonnes of potato daily.

Bengal is the second-largest producer of potato in the country after Uttar Pradesh.

According to Writers’ sources, the main reason for the refusal to hike rent is the chief minister’s stand against burdening farmers. “Her stand on this is similar to that on increase in transport fares and power tariff. This government keeps looking away from economic realities till the last minute, citing populist reasons, only to yield when there is a crisis,” an official said.

According to him, only 10 per cent of potato farmers in Bengal can afford cold storage facilities.

“Middlemen mostly use the cold storages. By refusing to allow a rent hike, the government is effectively helping the middlemen,” he added.

According to sources in the government, Bengal and Tripura are the only states in India where the administration controls cold storage rent.

The last rent hike in Bengal was allowed in 2010 during the Left Front rule. It had been raised by Rs 39.

The sources said the chief minister would take a call on the hike demand. According to them, work on revising rent cannot begin till an expert committee of officials of the agricultural marketing and agriculture departments and representatives of cold storage owners’ unions is set up.

An expert committee is constituted every year to assess costs and expenses and recommend charge revisions.

“This government is yet to set up such a committee. The committee needs around six months to submit its recommendations,” an official said.

Asked if the panel would be set up, minister Roy said: “Yes. I cannot tell you when, but it will be done.”