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Potato haves and have-nots

Calcutta, Aug. 8: Critics of the Bengal government’s potato intervention policy have pointed to a curious detail to claim the drive smacks of tokenism.

The government has opened outlets to sell potato at prices far lower than the market rate (see chart). But all the 27 centres are located in urban areas such as Calcutta, Salt Lake and Howrah.

There is no clarity yet on whether such subsidised stalls will be opened elsewhere in the state too.

Income levels are relatively higher in urban areas than those in rural belts, and the more needy would be found in villages, not in the city and its outskirts, officials said.

However, if the scheme is widened across the state, the government may fall short of affordable stocks that are now largely sourced from seized trucks and cold storage units that are at the mercy of the administration, the officials said.

The government is buying potato directly from cold storages and seizing stocks from trucks transporting the commodity to other states in violation of a directive.

Senior officials said around 70 trucks have been stopped near the Odisha border since last night and the seized potato is being brought to Calcutta so that the counters don’t run out of stock.

“The sellers will buy the potato from the government at Rs 12 a kilo and sell them to consumers at Rs 14 a kilo. The government will pay the owners of the seized potato Rs 12 a kilo,” a Nabanna official said.

The government has stopped the transportation of potato to other states and issued an advisory to sell the tuber at Rs 14 a kilo after the price rose to Rs 22 a kilo in Calcutta and Rs 20 a kilo in the districts.

Several officials said that once the government decided to intervene — which itself has added fuel to the price fire — the districts should have been given higher priority than the city.

According to Planning Commission figures, 22.52 per cent of Bengal’s rural population fell below the poverty line. The figure is 14.66 per cent in urban areas.

The potato policy makes it “seem like all the poor people live in Calcutta or its surrounding areas. I can’t understand the government’s logic behind selling potato at subsidised rates only in Calcutta,” an official said. “The people in the districts need subsidised potato more than those in the city.”

A minister said the government would sell subsidised potato in the districts, too.

But an agricultural department official said it was not possible for the government to sell potato at Rs 14 a kilo across the state. “The government does not harvest potato, so it does not have a stock of its own. The agriculture-marketing and horticulture departments are putting pressure on the West Bengal Cold Storage Association to give the government potato at Rs 13.30 a kilo. This potato is being sold at Rs 14 a kilo at the city counters.”

According to estimates, the association is giving 100 tonnes of potato every week to the two departments at Rs 13.30 a kilo although the price of the tuber is Rs 18 a kilo at the cold storages.

“As cold storage owners have to renew their licence every year, seek subsidy on electricity bills and request extension of deadlines to keep stock, they feel compelled to sell the potato to the government at a cheaper rate. They can still afford to do so as the demand is around 100 tonnes a week now. If the demand goes up, the storage owners will not be able to supply at such a low rate,” another official said.