‘Mundu’ chilli farmers say COVID-19 pandemic has led to reduced returns for produce

The shortage of labour and the restrictions in transporting the produce to other States, have reduced their profit margins, say farmers

For the farmers of ‘Ramnad mundu’, a native chilli variety of Ramanathapuram district, the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time.

While around 40% of the crop is harvested across the district, the shortage of labour and the restrictions in transporting the produce to other States, have reduced their profit margins, rue farmers. They demand interventions by the government to help them earn higher profits for their produce.

Deputy Director (Horticulture) N. Balakrishnan says that the Mundu chilli variety has been raised on around 16,000 hectares in the district. Usually, this chilli variety commands good demand in both domestic and international markets.

While the harvest season is underway across the district, there is a shortage in farm labour to help out with harvesting due to the lockdown imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, says N. Santhakumar, a farmer from Kadambodai village in Mudukulathur block.

“In the wake of the outbreak, the labourers are not willing to work at farmlands in other villages as they are scared that they might contract COVID-19. The labour shortage delays the plucking of the crop and so, some of the crop gets spoiled,” he says.

Due to rise in demand for farm labourers, currently farmers are paying an additional ₹100 for their wages, says A. Paneerselvam, another farmer.

With rising operational costs for farmers, the current market price for Mundu chillies, which ranges from ₹100 to ₹130, is not profitable for farmers, says S. Michael, Chairman of Ramanathapuram Chillies Producers Company, a farmer producer organisation. “Only if the chillies are sold at ₹200 per kg, will we be able to get decent profits,” he says.

Mr. Michael adds that despite having a good yield this year, the farmers are being forced to sell their produce for lower rates to traders and commission agents. “Though the government had announced that there must be no restrictions in transportation of agricultural produce, there is still some hesitation among the traders,” he says.

Usually, 60% of the crop harvested from the district is sold in other states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, but this has been disrupted due to the lockdown, says the Deputy Director of Horticulture. ‘We are ready to provide emergency passes to the traders, but there are hardly any of them who come forward,” he says.

K. Kanthirajan, director of Ramanathapuram Mundu Chilli Growers’ Association, says that traders who used to buy their produce to export it to foreign countries have not procured from them due to the pandemic. “We are worried that by stocking up the produce, the crop might lose weight. We are also apprehensive that the chillies, if kept out for a long period, might lose colour and eventually fetch lower profits,” he says.

To avoid this problem, the district administration has encouraged farmers to store their produce at the godowns in regulated markets, where there are not charged any fee for 30 days, says P. Raja, secretary of Ramanathapuram Market Committee. “They can also store their produce at the three cold storage facilities in the district for free for 15 days. They can store their produce here and sell them to traders when market prices rise,” he says.

The traders are also exempted from market fees and free permits are issued to them for transporting the produce to other states, in the wake of the lockdown, he adds.

Mr. Michael also urges the government to procure the chillies directly from farmers, similar to paddy, in order to help the farmers earn higher profits.

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