La Tomatina? Not in India
It is necessary to contextualise how this resource got out of reach for ordinary Indians in a span of one month.
The price of tomatoes at vegetable markets in Chennai breached the Rs 120/kg mark last week, turning unaffordable for the masses who had to rely on cheaper alternatives like tamarind and lemons to supplement their daily nutritional requirements vis-a-vis ingredients in rasam, sambar, chutneys, kuzhambus and gravies of all kinds.
It is necessary to contextualise how this resource got out of reach for ordinary Indians in a span of one month. Various factors led to an abrupt drop in the quantity of tomatoes brought to mandis (markets) across the nation. Relatively high temperatures had an adverse effect on the yield of tomatoes. The erratic and uncommon spells of rain in the northern states also hit production. Add to this, the fact that the months July-August is a lean production period, and you have the prime recipe for shortage.
Since November 2022, the prices of tomatoes had started dipping and it had retailed for around Rs 20-25/kg in many metros. A significant fall in realisation of prices had entailed massive losses to small and marginal farmers who were in no position to afford cultivating the crop during the next season. In fact, many farmers had even switched to the cultivation of beans — thanks to the higher price fetched by the veggie last year. Apart from beans, they also cultivated crops like corn and soy. In Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts of Karnataka, the menace of the parasitic leaf curl virus had resulted in 50-70% loss of tomato yield.
According to experts, farmers in developing nations are bearing the brunt of extreme weather events, which has amplified in 2023, which happens to be the year of El Nino. The climate pattern is responsible for reduction in rainfall as well as disturbing the distribution of monsoon. Such developments are indicative of the need for India to consider a paradigm shift when it comes to the cultivation of such essential crops. For starters, around the world, tomatoes are being cultivated in greenhouses and polyhouses, essentially within a controlled environment. The advantage is that farmers get a better quality of crop, greater yield, as well as more control over pest infestation and diseases. Unfortunately in India, this remains a pipe-dream that hasn’t taken off on a large scale.
Agricultural scientists have opined that a small but significant portion of the nation’s tomato yield should be channelled into food processing factories (that make tomato paste/puree). By doing so, consumers have an option to switch to processed alternatives in the event of inflation. This will also help farmers in stabilising the crop price and their incomes. Stakeholders have also called for a dip in GST rates levied on processed tomatoes — from 12% to 5% to make them within the reach of the common citizen. Apart from this, a certain degree of government intervention is also a must — say agricultural reforms that push for direct marketing, private mandis and contract farming.
Let’s not forget the big daddy of all concerns — cold chains. Here in India, the notion of a cold chain infrastructure is something that has lots of room for improvement. Rapid expansion of cold chain infrastructure can benefit the agro community in a big way by playing a foil to climatic uncertainties, while diminishing wastage and controlling price volatility of perishable goods.