THANJAVUR/TIRUCHY: While farmers are struggling to market their produce due to the lockdown, the State government has arranged for help desks in all districts and released their contact numbers. Farmers have been asked to contact the numbers in case they find it difficult to sell their produce. Transportation restrictions caused by the lockdown have crippled farmers’ livelihoods. However, the government a few days later lifted restrictions on freight carriers to transport agricultural produce.
Though it came as a relief to a majority of farmers, it did not help banana farmers as private auction centres remain closed. Farmers who cultivate cotton, onion, banana, flowers and other cash crops have been worst hit while paddy farmers have managed to scrape through without bearing the brunt of the lockdown. Banana and flower farmers have suffered huge losses as the nature of their crops require timely sales.
Plight of banana farmers
In many places in Tiruchy and Thanjavur, farmers left their banana bunches to ripen in trees as they could not be plucked and transported due to the lockdown. Banana bunches from these places are transported to Kerala to manufacture chips. “Before restrictions were lifted, our bananas were already ripe, but Kerala would not accept them. Because of this, 20 per cent of the bananas produced in Tiruchy are now worthless,” said farmer leader Aylai Sivasuriyan. The one-week gap between the restrictions and lifting them dealt a blow to banana farmers.
In Tiruchy district, banana is cultivated on about 15,000 acres and 11,500 acres in Thanjavur district. Farmers are now worried because banana prices have rapidly dropped as auction mandis are not functioning and there is no demand in markets of other States. Sivasuriyan said tenant farmers would be unable to pay rents to landowners as they have run into huge losses. Banana farmers in Thanjavur district also lamented demand for plantain leaves has plummeted following the closure of eateries across the State. In Thanjavur - a delta district dominated by paddy - banana is a key cash crop which gives farmers a decent income in normal years. However, the lockdown has led to farmers getting minimal returns on their yields. P Sukumaran, a farmer from Tirupoonthurthi, told TNIE he had to cut down many bunches as they are rotting in the trees.
Bananas could not be harvested due to lack of markets and finding transport was difficult. He said private auction centres for the banana bunches in Nadukkadai and Tiruvaiyaru remained closed, adding to the woes of banana farmers. Though the Horticulture department advertised help desk numbers for farmers to market their produce, when farmers contacted the numbers, they were only offered permission to hire vehicles to transport their crops. “Small farmers like me cannot afford to rent a vehicle. What is the use of giving me permission to rent a vehicle? Only big farmers can afford vehicles. What can I do now with my banana bunches?,” Sukumaran asked.
Farmers also used to get revenue by selling banana leaves to eateries. The farmers sell the leaves to agents, who usually send bundles to eateries in far-off places, including Chennai, on top of omni buses every day. With the closure of most eateries across the State and no bus services, the demand for plantain leaves also plummeted, said farmers from the Tirukkattupalli area. The farmers used to get Rs. 1 lakh per acre per year selling plantain leaves. Now, even that avenue has been closed.
No takers for onion, cotton
Groundnut, cultivated on around 8,000 hectares in Thanjavur district, has been partially affected as farmers have been unable to employ labourers as prices have been ruling low. Farmers of Perambalur district, known for onion and cotton cultivation, are also in distress as there are no takers for their produce. Farmers have stored their crops in their houses and are waiting for traders. Senthil of Nattarmangalam said, “I had cultivated onion on five acres and harvested 20 tonnes. But I was able to sell only half and the rest is stored in my house. Before the lockdown, traders used to come to our village every day to take onions to Chennai. Nowadays, they come once in three days.” Another worry is the high costs of hiring a vehicle. (With inputs from M S Thanaraj and P Thiruselvam)