Maharashtra’s Farmers Are Struggling To Ship Their Mangoes Amid Lockdown
A vendor waits for customers at a wholesale stall selling mangoes inside Crawford Market in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Maharashtra’s Farmers Are Struggling To Ship Their Mangoes Amid Lockdown

Amogh Mulye’s family has been growing Alphonso mangoes in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, for over 80 years. The 29-year-old, third-generation farmer grows the premium variant that’s wildly popular with consumers, exporters and food processing firms for its sweet, succulent pulp and mild flavour. This year, he fears the worst.

As the nation went into a stringent lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, he can’t get the fruit plucked from the 3,000-odd trees at his 70-acre orchard quickly enough and has also struggled to find transport.

Millions of unskilled workers, finding themselves out of job and with no money as all businesses barring essential services were shuttered, fled cities. Mango farmers and vendors in Maharashtra—India’s richest state that has the highest number of people infected by Covid-19—are facing the brunt of this exodus. “We usually get migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh to pluck the harvest,” Mulye told BloombergQuint over the phone. “However, due to the lockdown they weren’t able to come to our village.”

These are not the only worries for Mulye. The mango season begins in February, peaks in April-May and ends in mid-June, coinciding with the onset of the monsoon rains. His annual yield—which averages 6,000-8,000 cartons each containing 5-7 dozens of the fruit—dropped due to unseasonal rains last year. “And as markets were closed, prices tumbled.”

On March 20, one carton of Alphonso mangoes fetched Rs 2,500, Mulye said, adding that it had nearly halved by April 1. “The rates are slowly improving now.”

A file image of Alphonso mangoes being packed into a wooden crate at a local mango trader’s premises in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

The bulk farm market, or the Agriculture Produce Market Committee, in Vashi (Navi Mumbai), Pune, Sangli in Maharashtra; and Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Surat in Gujarat were shut during the initial days of the lockdown. They later reopened following physical distancing and other safety measures. The fruit market at Vashi started operating from April 20 by taking all precautions,” Sanjay Pansare, director of fruit market at Vashi APMC, told BloombergQuint over the phone. “For mangoes, production and rates are lower than usual though the prices are slowly improving.”

Mulye, whose family took additional land on lease for cultivation and a bank loan of Rs 20 lakh for this year’s season, said the curbs on public movement led to 10-15 percent wastage. “Due to imposition of section 144 (of Criminal Procedure Code), not more than three labourers could go to the farm for harvesting,” he said. “Ripened mangoes are falling off the trees.”

Suhas Dandekar, 42, who owns a 40-acre mango orchard with around 1,000 trees at Devghad taluka in Sindhudurg district, said while rates are improving, farmers are still in loss. “A single peti (carton), which used to cost Rs 6,000-7,000 earlier, is now worth Rs 2,500.”

Dandekar took a bank loan of Rs 12 lakh for this season. “If things don’t improve by May, it will be tough to repay.”

Shutdown of processing factories, too, is causing distress among mango farmers. Dandekar is not finding a buyer for nearly a fifth of his produce that has spots or minor defects—also called second quality. “These mangoes are bought by canning factories to make juices or pulps. But this year, there’s no demand for it as factories are shut,” he said, adding that he’s making ras (juice) and amba poli (mango pancake) out of them. “It’s not possible to use all of them; it’s going waste.”

If that wasn’t enough, finding trucks to ship the produce is difficult. The lockdown initially left nearly all trucks stranded and drivers abandoned vehicles. Even after restrictions were eased to allow supply chains to resume, according to All India Motor Transport Congress, only 15 to 20 percent of the over 90 lakh trucks are back on the road. And there’s also a scare of getting infected.

“Drivers were scared to go to Pune and Mumbai because of the virus and villagers were scared to let them in after the travel,” Mulye said. “There was a lot of stigma attached to traveling.”

A file image of a farm worker using a bamboo pole to pick Alphonso mangoes during a harvest in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A file image of a farm worker using a bamboo pole to pick Alphonso mangoes during a harvest in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Wholesalers Tie Up For Delivery

It’s usually a busy mango season for wholesale vendors too. Not this time. Lack of transport agents and time taken at checkposts has made transporting mangoes, a highly perishable commodity, very difficult,” said Rohan Satish Ursal, managing director of DB Ursal and Grandsons. Demand has fallen during the lockdown, he said, adding that the 2,000-3,000 cartons he supplied in a day are now sold in a week.

To improve demand, Ursal has partnered with the food delivery app Zomato to deliver mangoes and other fruits and vegetables to housing societies in 10 locations in Pune by roping in farmers. “We’re trying to help the farmers in whatever way possible.”

The Maharashtra State Agriculture Marketing Board has set up an online portal to connect farmers and end users for direct delivery.

Yet, not many farmers that BloombergQuint spoke with were enthused. “Not everyone is covered and the rates they offered are lower than the market price,” Dandekar said.

Mulye, who had registered with the portal some 10-12 days ago, is yet to receive an order. “They have specified quality and weight of mango they need. They will only take first quality mango that weighs 200-250 grams,” he said. “That’s only 20-25 percent of my total production. I won’t be able to transport 100 petis (as it’s a small volume).”

Bhaskar Patil, deputy general manager of the agriculture marketing board, however, said that the response to the portal was good. He also denied restrictions for selling a particular type or quality of mangoes. “However, housing societies can choose to order particular types of mangoes,” he told BloombergQuint. “As we start getting more orders, the demand will be well distributed and farmers who have different types and qualities of mangoes will benefit.”

Patil also disagreed that prices had crashed because of the lockdown, claiming that farmers were getting market paid as per market standards. “Because of marketing board campaigns, which involved several agencies and housing societies, we were able to connect distant farmers to the buyers.” And he expects demand and prices to increase during Akshaya Tritiya.

There will be a “little impact” in profits but that’s inevitable in such extraordinary times where saving lives is the first priority, he said.

Also Read: India’s Textile Units Brace For Many Layers Of Uncertainty

For Mulye, farmers getting the right price at the right time is akin to saving lives. He hoped the situation improved. “If not, whatever’s happening with the farmers of Vidharba can now happen in Konkan too,” he said, referring to the spate of suicides in drought-prone hinterland of Maharashtra.

(Updates an earlier version to correct the spelling of Amogh Mulyes surname)

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