Officials of the Andhra Pradesh State Co-operative Marketing Federation Limited (AP MARKFED) on Wednesday participated in an auction held in Prakasam district. The auction, where officials participated on behalf of the state government, was to purchase tobacco.
From Thursday, at all auction centres in the state, MARKFED officials will participate in the bidding for tobacco, as per rates decided by the government — which range from Rs 85 per kg to Rs 140 per kg, depending on the quality of the crop. This means that, if no one else makes a better bid than MARKFED, the agency will procure the crop and will then need to sell it.
The YSRCP government says that it has been forced to step in as tobacco farmers are in dire straits with the coronavirus lockdown pushing them into a crisis. The farmers said that auctions were suspended due to the lockdown, as a result of which they have been unable to sell their stock. Once restrictions were eased, the price being quoted was too low for them to break even.
Several farmers have repeatedly staged protests and submitted representation to various officials, stating that they needed government aid to tide over the crisis.
However, the government purchase has resulted in a contradiction, as it is in direct conflict with both the state and the central government's policy to reduce consumption of tobacco. Activists say that while state government intervention was necessary, purchasing the crop will have its own repercussions.
“From the farmer's point of view, there are many parts of Andhra where tobacco has been a traditional crop. With the general campaign against tobacco consumption, the crop has gotten seriously affected where the market is concerned. As a result, tobacco farmers have been up in arms against the whole thing,” explains Kiran Vissa from the Rythu Swaraj Vedika (RSV), an organisation that works on farmers’ issues.
“The government’s plan to help out farmers is necessary, but it is a dilemma. If the government is acquiring it, it will also need to sell it. So that is a contradiction we have to live with,” he adds.
The state government seems determined to go ahead with its plan. Earlier in June, it fixed the minimum selling price (MSP) of the cash crop and said that companies who do noy buy the product through auction will stand to have their licenses cancelled.
The list of rates approved by the government would be prominently displayed at purchasing centers during the auction, officials said.
Pointing out that state governments have purchased several crops from farmers in the past, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy had said, “Purchases should be made in accordance with the prices in the state; if not, the licences will be revoked. We have made bulk purchases during the coronavirus scare to encourage farmers. Tobacco also will be purchased.”
Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, Director at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) believes that the government must discourage consumption if it wants to avoid long term consequences.
He says, “The area covered by tobacco has come down significantly over the last 10 to 15 years, and is now present in the belt of Guntur and Prakasam districts. While the market has gone down completely, the association of farmers is very strong and they have been making attempts to get the government involved."
Ramanjeyulu points out that farmers were encouraged to grow other crops like jowar; other alternatives were tried out too, but some farmers who stuck to tobacco, have not been able to find a market even for the reduced area under cultivation.
“The decision to purchase tobacco is a political decision because there is a lobby with a political base. We need to see its implications. The area may increase, as people are always interested to grow tobacco if there is money, and then later force governments to buy the crop,” he says.
“The government, instead of buying, can just facilitate the whole process till purchase. In the long run, they should discourage consumption or else there is no way out of it,” he adds.