Nashik: Santosh Haribhau Jadhav, an onion farmer in the Manmad area of Nashik, is racing against time to sift through his 100-tonne harvest, throwing the rotten ones aside and collecting the fresh ones in a pile for packing.
Mangesh Malvi, an onion trader, is also counting the sacks being loaded onto racks in his godown next to the kanda (Marathi for onion) mandi, because there’s literally a train to catch.
After months of meagre-to-no sales during the Covid-19 lockdown, these men finally got a chance to salvage their produce for the season with a first-of-its-kind special onion train to Bangladesh arranged by the Central Railways.
The onion industry in Nashik took a massive hit after the lockdown was announced, with few trucks available to ferry the produce to mandis and other states. While the lockdown allowed exemptions for essential products like food items, most local mandis shut down amid a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases. The demand for onions declined drastically, causing a loss of lakhs and crores to farmers and traders, and the lack of work forced labourers to return home.
“We had a good produce this year, but there was no one to buy it. Almost 50 per cent of the produce rotted and we could do nothing,” Santosh Haribhau told ThePrint.
“I lost 50 tonnes (50,000 kg) of onion, just because it kept lying around and there was no one to purchase it. It is even difficult to calculate how much we lost. This time we have not even recovered the cost of farming,” he added.
As the losses continued to mount, onion traders’ associations across Nashik got together in May and approached the operations and commercial unit of the railways, which otherwise helps with the transport of products to states across India, seeking their intervention.
Bangladesh — a lucrative market
The farmers asked the railways to make some arrangements to transport onions to Bangladesh, describing it as a lucrative market with a high demand for onions. In the pre-lockdown times, many traders told ThePrint, those without export licences would resort to smuggling onions to India’s eastern neighbour in a bid to tap its vast market.
With the borders sealed on account of the lockdown, that became impossible, and traders were forced to seek an alternative.
“We told them (railways) that the produce of the farmers is just rotting and that they should do something to ensure it is transported to places where there is a big market. While 50 per cent of it has already gone to waste, the other 50 per cent, too, will rot if no measures are taken,” Sanjay Lalwani, who heads the onion traders’ association for Manmad, said.
The request was then taken up by the railways and the proposal sent to the Ministry of External Affairs for clearance.
“We took the necessary clearances… To help the farmers and traders and kick-start the business again, and, at the same time, to fulfil the essential need of the neighbouring country, we started a special train carrying onions to Bangladesh’s Darshana, Rohanpur, Birole and Benapole,” Shivaji Sutar, the chief public relations officer (CPRO) for Central Railways, said. The first train, Sutar added, was run on 6 May.
“This export of onions from India’s onion hub, Nashik-Manmad-Kopergaon area, has brought immense relief to the traders and farmers across Maharashtra. Furthermore, it is also a win-win situation for farmers, loaders, railways, and for Bangladesh,” he added.
It is because of these exports that the price of onion did not drop very low in India, say industry insiders.
“The price of onion before this pandemic started was Rs 40 per kg, which then dropped to Rs 7 per kg. If the government had not started this train, it would have further dropped to Rs 3 to Rs 4 per kg, which would have been disastrous,” Sachin Lalwani, a trader from Lasalgaon, said.
Over one lakh tonnes of onion already transported
According to Central Railways, nearly 55 trains exported over one lakh tonnes of onions to Bangladesh between 6 May and 10 July.
“The 55 rakes loaded with 1.262 lakh tonnes of onions were transported from Nashik, Kherwadi, Niphad, Lasalgaon and Manmad stations of Bhusaval division and from Kopergaon, Yeole stations of Solapur division of Central Railways to Darshana, Rohanpur, Birole and Benapole in Bangladesh,” Sutar said.
“It all began with the first rake loaded to Bangladesh from Lasalgaon to Darshana. When that became a success and we got confident that we can help more farmers by sending these trains, we scheduled 27 more trains in June. And the process is now continuing,” he added.
Sutar said the Central Railways is now conducting regular video conferences with loaders to discuss the exports and how the process can be improved.
“All possible assistance is being provided to the loaders in coordination with the district administration. During loading, social distancing measures and sanitising practices, as mandated by central and state governments, are being observed,” Sutar said.
‘Homoeopathy advisory hit sales’
Although the exports to Bangladesh came as a relief, there is still a lot of produce that lies stacked in godowns because some of the biggest buyers — restaurants and hotels — remain shut or are yet to resume operations at pre-lockdown levels.
“If one or two onions start to rot in a pile, it affects the entire batch. Since we did not have any labour working during lockdown, there was no one to do the sifting and packing, which is why tonnes of onion rotted,” said Jadhav.
“Our business is down by 75 per cent,” said trader Sachin Lalwani. “Almost 35 per cent of our stock goes to hotels and restaurants. Since those are shut, there are no sales. We have also tried to sell our stock for the throwaway price of Rs 7 per kg but unless the hotel industry starts, there will be a slump.”
Speaking to ThePrint, traders and farmers also noted that an AYUSH Ministry directive suggesting the homoeopathic preparation Arsenic album 30 as a Covid-19 preventive had heavily impacted sales.
It is generally advised that one should not eat onion or garlic when consuming a homoeopathy medicine. “This became a major problem for us. Since many people were taking this homoeopathy medicine, the sales of onion dipped drastically. Even at the mandis, there were hardly any takers,” Jadhav said.
Another reason for many onions going to waste was traders waiting for the prices to go up, Sachin Lalwani added.
“They stocked the onion and waited for the prices to go up. They thought that the price may increase but it did not, in fact, it dropped further by each passing day. Much of the stock went to waste just like that,” he said.
“Moreover, in times of monsoon, onions require extra care. If the batch gets wet, the moisture is not good for the onion and it gets spoiled and that is what happened with most farmers and traders,” he added.
The last lockdown in Nashik was lifted on 1 June, although restrictions persist in containment zones, and labour has begun returning to its onion farms and godowns.
Ravi Jadhav, who earns Rs 6 for each sack he packs, requested a trader to call him back to work when he ran out of all his savings.
“All our money has been exhausted. We were unable to fetch a meal a day and so requested the traders to give us some work. Now they have called me for packing,” he said.
To earn more, he has also put his wife and daughter to work.
“We will get more money if there are more hands. My daughter’s school is shut so I asked her to come to work with me. We are in debt. I cannot even explain how we managed in the last four months with no money,” he said.
Most of the workers — either the ones in the field, or the ones working in godowns for packing — are local Maharashtra residents.
The next crop season begins in August when the onion seeds will be sown. The crop will be harvested in November and December.
“Looking at what happened with the last produce, I am thinking twice before starting work in the field,” said Haribhau Jadhav. “I am left with so much old produce. God forbid, if this corona is here to stay, who knows what will happen in November.”
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