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Bengal eases potato ban
- Decision follows pressure from tuber traders

File picture of police personnel checking potato-laden trucks on Digha border in East Midnapore in Bengal

Calcutta/Bhubaneswar, Aug. 14: The Bengal government has allowed the sale of potato to Odisha, along with Jharkhand, for a week, partially lifting a ban that is being blamed for fuelling the rise in the price of the tuber.

The move comes at a time when the Odisha government blamed its Bengal counterpart for the shortage and subsequent high price of potato in the state.

“The shortage arose because of an undeclared restriction imposed by the Bengal government on potato supply to the state,” Odisha’s food and civil supplies minister Sanjay Das Burma had told The Telegraph yesterday.

The Mamata Banerjee government said it allowed the transportation of potato to Odisha and Jharkhand in response to requests by the two states. Sources, however, said the Bengal government had been under pressure from potato traders, who have been suffering losses because of the export ban in place since July-end.

As Bengal is a potato-surplus state, traders will suffer more losses if they don’t clear the excess stock of around five lakh tonnes before the new crop enters cold storages in November.

During a meeting in Calcutta yesterday with the task force set up to monitor prices of essential commodities, the Banerjee told representatives of potato traders that the government would partially lift the blanket ban on transportation for seven days.

“But the relaxation will be limited. Traders can send 5,000 tonnes of potatoes to Odisha every day between August 17 and 23, and 500 tonnes to Jharkhand every day during the same period. Strong vigil will be maintained during the transportation,” said a minister who had attended the meeting.

The minister said the decision to lift the blanket ban was taken after Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik requested Mamata to send potatoes.

“As Odisha is battling floods, we have decided to send 35,000 tonnes of potatoes to the state,” the minister added.

A senior Bengal government official, however, said the government had “given in to the demands of traders, who had been protesting the ban on the export of potato after a sudden rise in the price of the tuber”.

Within a week of the ban, imposed on July 27, the price of the Jyoti variety soared to Rs 22 a kilo in Calcutta and Rs 20 a kilo in the districts.

Senior government officials had said that “unhappy” with the government’s decision, potato traders had “created a bottleneck in the supply chain”, resulting in the price rise. The officials said the traders squeezed supply by bringing less potato to the market, which drove up prices.

Although the administration tried to handle the situation by selling potato — largely sourced from stocks seized from trucks transporting the tuber to other states in violation of the ban and from cold storage owners who are at the mercy of the government — at Rs 14 a kilo at counters in select Calcutta markets, prices did not come down.

“It is clear that the government has surrendered to the potato traders by allowing them to sell stocks to other states. It has been proved that unless the traders bring more stocks out of cold storages, prices cannot be brought down,” an official said.

A section of traders, who have potato stocked in cold storages, said they were happy with the decision to partially lift the ban, but added that the government should consider a complete withdrawal.

“We have enough stocks…. We have around 30 lakh tonnes of potato in cold storages. The state’s consumption requirement till December, when fresh stocks will arrive, is 25 lakh tonnes. We have around five lakh tonnes that have to be exported,” said a representative of the West Bengal Progressive Potato Traders’ Association.

“The stocks have to be cleared before November, when the early variety of potato from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh starts coming to Bengal. If we can’t send the potato to other states by end-October, we will suffer losses,” a trader said.