Karachi’s small-scale vegetable growers on the brink of bankruptcy, thanks to falling demand

April 06, 2020

Karachi: Rashid Ali Durrani, a small-scale harvester and grower of vegetables in the Uthal tehsil of District Lasbela, Balochistan, finds it hard to pay the debts he had taken for growing tomatoes,...

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Karachi: Rashid Ali Durrani, a small-scale harvester and grower of vegetables in the Uthal tehsil of District Lasbela, Balochistan, finds it hard to pay the debts he had taken for growing tomatoes, owing to the coronavirus lockdown.

Durrani, who hails from Orangi Town, Karachi, is one of the small-scale cultivators who have invested in the agriculture sector and frequently visit the neighbouring districts of Balochistan.

In November last year, the growing season of tomatoes in Lasbela, when he acquired these loans from commission agents in the fruit and vegetable market in Karachi, the prices of tomato across the country were all-time high, as much as Rs400 per kilogram.

This season, Durrani expected that he would cover his expenditures and be able to clear his debts from the past seasons when the crops had been severely damaged by rains.

But soon after the emergence of coronavirus cases in Pakistan, the federal government announced closures of borders with neighbhouring countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, India and China. Likewise, all big cities have been shut down by the provincial governments, gatherings of four or more persons are not allowed, and all inter-provincial public transport transportation is banned.

These restrictive measures have resulted in a steep decline in the prices of tomatoes and have forced Durrani to sell tomatoes for as low as one rupee a kilo in the market, that too in case he finds transport to supply vegetables to the market.

According to the price list issued by the Karachi commissioner on Saturday, the price of first-class tomatoes is Rs15 a kilo in the fruit and vegetable market, Rs16 in the Bachat bazaars and Rs17 at vegetable stalls. Likewise, the price of second-class tomatoes is Rs10 per kg in the market, Rs11 in the Bachat bazaars, and Rs12 at vegetable stalls.

“Every year, we the small-scale farmers hardly save tomato plants from thrips, aphids, caterpillar, pest bugs, and other agricultural and horticultural insects. By this year, a human virus is forcing the harvesters to cut corners for survival,” Durrani said while talking to The News on Saturday.

He said he had acquired 15 acres on a one-year lease against Rs0.5 million per annum. In November when tomatoes prices went up due to a shortage, he planted a tomato crop spending Rs2 million, excluding the other expenses such as the payment of electricity bills of the tube well pump, daily wages of farm workers, seed and fertilizer costs, and insect prevention spays.

“Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the demand for the locally-grown vegetables is less than the supply. These days, the demand-and-supply formula doesn’t work because growers cannot stock ready crops of vegetables in the fields for the demand to go up. Also, fresh vegetables need a steady supply in both cases whether the demand goes up or down."

He said that the pandemic had pulled the rug from under the farmers' feet, and especially low-profile agriculturalists were in a perfect storm. They cannot transport produce to the local markets like Karachi, Quetta and Lahore because of the lockdown that the government announced last month to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

“The vegetable supply chain from Balochistan to other parts of the country is almost zero, while the Pak-Afghan border is closed due to which vegetables' export to Afghanistan is no longer maintained. The farmers prefer to let their yields crumble in the field rather than spending time and money on packaging.”

Durrani pointed out that packing a 20kg box of tomatoes costs from Rs70 to 80, while per carton transportation cost to Quetta is Rs80 and to Karachi it is Rs50. On each 20kg box, the middleman charges a 10 per cent commission after the sale. In addition, the loading and unloading cost per box is Rs2. In the end, the farmers get from one to three rupees per kg.

“These days, market agents who finance small cultivators send reimbursements to the farmers, who pay them from pockets. On the one hand, the farmers are suffering from heavy losses, and on the other they even pay to supply the harvests for free. This is why a majority of the farmers have left their ready corps to spoil in the fields,” said Muhammad Riaz, a Karachi-based farmer in the same area.

He said now small farmers couldn’t tolerate losses. They prefer to put their ready crops to cattle or let them rot in the fields. “Restaurants and food stalls consume more tomatoes and other vegetables, but these days they have been locked by the government and people in the cities get enough supply,” said Riaz.

He said that the people of nearby villages in Lasbela’s Uthal town were not ready to get free vegetables even for their animals. Perhaps, they have grown their own crops, which may be sufficient for them. Another farmer, Bakht Jamal, said that the government had to intervene in the matter and take appropriate measures for the facilitation of farmers, so that the farmers could at least export their ready products to Afghanistan, which was the biggest market of Pakistani vegetables. “We are wasting thousands of tons of vegetables on a daily basis because of the ban on inter-provincial transportation.”

He said Pakistan’s high-ups always claimed that they would facilitate and compensate farmers, but in reality no one came forward to take responsibility.

Commenting on the issue, economist Asim Bashir Khan said: “The lockdown has badly affected everyone whether they are growers, cattle farmers or poultry farmers. Their products have a low demand because of the unavailable transport. The prices have gone so low that the farmers are unable to cover the cost of their crops."

He suggested that the government should ensure a functional supply chain for all crops and design a compensation mechanism, especially for small farmers -- a fast track social protection rescue operation.

If measures were not taken, thousands of small-scale farmers would fall below the poverty line, and, resultantly, the vegetable supply to Karachi would be affected, he warned.

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