THE onion farmers in Swat are not getting reasonable returns for their crop due to absence of a modern market system in the province. Despite a bumper onion crop this year, they have not fully benefited from the harvest.
Farmers say regulated markets, local onion purchase centres, improved transportation of the produce to other provinces and export facilitation centres are needed to help them get fair price for their crop.
Swat onions are liked for their big size, appetising taste and better quality, but farmers say the middlemen and commission agents are taking bulk of the profit.
Lower prices have compelled farmers to delay their harvest and sales in the hope of better return. While a few of them can afford to keep their harvest in self-owned or rented godowns, most dump onion in their fields in the open.
In Swat and Dir, one can see a lot of these onion-dumps in fields, hujras and in front of houses. A hailstorm or rain and humidity could damage the harvested crop.
“The commission agents in Gujranwala promise us good returns and say a bag fetches Rs900-1100. But when we reach there, we find the price at Rs600 per bag. A truckload of 200 bags of onion can fetch up to Rs120,000 while our total expenses on the same quantity of onion comes to around Rs150,000,” says Daud Khan, a farmer near Mingora in lower Swat.
The onion price, he says, is not sufficient even to cover his expenses on cultivation, farm-rent and transportation etc. “I have taken land on lease for Rs0.3 million per annum from a local landlord, and spent another Rs0.11mn on labour and other inputs on the crop. An amount of Rs50,000 per trip have been spent on transportation and other expenses. I will have to make at least six trips so the total amount in this head alone comes to around Rs0.3 million. My total onion production comes to around 1,200 bags each weighing 90kg. It means I will earn not more than Rs0.72 million at the present market price. This is exactly what I have spent on the crop. There is no profit for me despite toiling for months. How can I sell my crop at this rate,” he said.
“The problem is that we cannot delay our harvesting and deals for long as the field and truck are to be emptied for new crops and to avoid inflated trucks fares which increases if offloading is delayed. Then there is the problem of security and rent in the market. Rains also are a constant threat as the commodity lies in the open which could be destroyed by ground moisture or insects. So the farmers have to sell their produce willy-nilly at lower rates,” he adds.
“Isn’t it unjust that the farmers are being paid only Rs6 per kg while the commodity is being sold at not less than Rs30-40kg in the market? Shouldn’t the government stop this injustice by commission agents and ensure a better price for farmers,” adds Khan.
“The government says it will create linkage between market and Swat farmers but has failed to ensure fair price for our produce. Agriculture in the region has been badly affected first by militancy and then by flash-floods but local farmers are yet to be given proper support,” he complains.
The provincial horticulture policy 2009 recommends setting up of agriculture producers’ markets and market information systems at district level.
Local farmers are compelled to take their onion to Punjab to get better prices. The problem can be solved by establishing regulated local markets and opening onion purchase centres in different parts of upper and lower Swat and Dir in the public, private sector or through public-private partnership.
Transportation of onion could be facilitated by arranging special goods-train from Dargai in Malakand where existing railway lines mostly lie unused.
Onion farmers would benefit if some waterproof packaging is introduced to minimise crop losses and facilitate export.
Swat accounts for 3/4th of the onion harvest of the province. Malakand division, especially Swat and Dir, produced about 108,000 tons of onion in 2006.