The colour of gold in northern Telangana is bright yellow. Sometimes, a hue extends to deep orange.
Dharmapuri Arvind, the BJP MP from Nizamabad, knows turmeric’s value in Telangana’s rhizome-rich region.
Politics over turmeric made Dharmapuri a giant killer, defeating K Kavitha, the sitting MP and daughter of Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, in 2019.
Thereby hangs the spicy tale of the National Turmeric Board (NTB) that may stain the colour of the general election in this constituency in 2024.
Here’s leaking the headline mid-way, though: On 1 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an NTB for Telangana.
And just three days later, on Wednesday, 4 October, the Union Cabinet notified the constitution of the NTB to “focus on the development and growth of turmeric and turmeric products in the country”.
The story is how it came about.
Importance of turmeric in Telangana
Turmeric is a major cash crop in northern Telangana. There’s dependable income, rather rich income, always. The idea is to get richer by growing turmeric. It is possible if the farmers adopt modern production, storage, trading, and processing techniques.
But they cannot do it on their own. Nor can the government help them because it has too much on its hands already. It needs a turmeric-specific body like the National Spice Board.
India is a major turmeric producer in the world. The annual output of 11.53 lakh tonnes is roughly 78 percent of global production. Next in line are China (8 percent), Myanmar (4 percent), and Nigeria and Bangladesh, contributing 6 percent together.
Most states in the country grow the rhizome. In 2021-22, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry data shows Telangana produced 33.0257 metric tonnes of turmeric in 55,444 hectares of land — the second-highest in the country.
The Agriculture Insurance Company of India counted 68,031 turmeric farmers in Telangana in 2014. With all family members involved in the job, roughly five lakh people depend on turmeric farming in the state, according to the national secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and member of the board of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), K Sai Reddy.
Maharashtra overtook Telangana in 2021-22, its production totalling 367.985 metric tonnes. Telangana always held primacy in the past, reaching a record output of 386.596 metric tonnes in 2019-20.
The crop is grown in the four erstwhile districts of Nizamabad, Adilabad, Karimnagar, and Warangal. Nizamabad comes first in acreage, Karimnagar in yield.
The average cost of a quintal (100 kg) of fresh turmeric comes to ₹824. Dry turmeric is ₹4,885 in Telangana.
Much of the produce goes to regional markets in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Further, it moves to Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi. The rest is consumed locally, either as rhizome or powder.
Price fluctuation plays the spoil-sport. The wide range can wipe out the deepest pockets in some years.
Sai Reddy told South First how it works: Consider investing ₹1 lakh per acre in cultivating rhizomes, with a yield of 20 tonnes. One would reasonably expect a minimum selling price of ₹10,000 per tonne, resulting in a profit of ₹1 lakh after a year. However, turmeric is not subject to Minimum Support Price (MSP) regulation,
So, the market determines its pricing. Sai Reddy says that this year, for instance, crops harvested in January-February, fetched only ₹ 6,000 per tonne, leaving farmers with a meagre profit of ₹20,000 per acre. In the past, turmeric was sold at even lower rates of ₹3,500 to ₹4,000 per tonne, causing substantial losses for these farmers.
Right now, in the same agricultural market in October, the price is ₹13,000 per ton. During the Covid-19 years, between 2020-2022, turmeric sold for at least ₹10,000 per tonne because of its high demand in the country and abroad for its medicinal value, Sai Reddy said.
Joginapally Ranga Rao, the Telangana president of BKS, explained to South First: “Only a few farmers can withhold their produce till the market can support their price. They have to have the capacity to store the produce. If not, most farmers sell the produce before the market is favourable and thus their profit is negligible.”
Pitch for a turmeric board
At their wit’s end, the farmers finally pitched to set up the NTB. The movement picked up speed quickly, primarily with the support of the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch and BKS.
How would the NTB benefit the farmers? Ranga Rao has the answer.
- The board can introduce advanced production techniques and make improved seeds available. Production costs would thus be reduced.
- The board would collaborate with the Union and the state governments to help the growers adopt modern post-harvest technology to elevate the quality of the produce, reduce wastage, and thus increase marketability.
- The board would also implement a market intervention scheme. The aim is to ensure profitable prices for the growers.
- It will help farmers get prices according to the grades of curcumin content in their turmeric. Curcumin is the chemical that is behind turmeric’s flavour and colour.
- The board can take up financing and insurance issues and suggest high-yielding turmeric varieties tailored to local agro-climatic conditions, focusing on varieties with a high curcumin content essential for the secondary processing industry.
It is not that the TRS, the precursor to the BRS, turned a blind eye to the tussle over turmeric.
The farmers’ demand for a board coincided with the Telangana statehood struggle and, understandably, took a back seat. KCR, who led the movement for a separate state, eventually took longer strides towards the goal and became chief minister. His daughter, Kavitha, became the party MP from Nizamabad.
Paying a political price for turmeric
After the state’s formation, the farmers’ demand for a turmeric board revived. By the time of the 2019 general election, Kavitha was dragged into the political melee surrounding turmeric.
Two years earlier, in 2017, the government had proposed establishing a spice park in Nizamabad district to address the needs of turmeric farmers. Finally, in 2019, the park began operations on a five-acre plot of land in the district.
The activities are limited to conducting research and distribution of seeds. Farmers also seek additional resources and profitability from their cultivation, but that has not materialised.
The pitch of the protests rose once again.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, around 180 farmers in the Nizamabad constituency contested as independents (84 remaining in the fray after withdrawals) as a sign of protest against the BRS (then TRS) leader Kavitha. They saw it as her failure to bring the turmeric board to their constituency.
The BJP jumped onto the board bandwagon. Its candidate, Dharmapuri Arvind, signed a written pledge, on non-judicial stamp paper no less, promising to get the Union government to sanction the board.
The BJP won the Nizamabad seat for the first time. The losing candidate was no less than KCR’s daughter.
The pledge paid dividends in the neighbouring turmeric-producing Karimnagar and Adilabad parliamentary constituencies as well, with BJP candidates winning the elections. Former BJP Telangana president and current national general secretary, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, and Soyam Bapu Rao, won from Karimnagar and Adilabad, respectively.
A promise forgotten
Time flowed, but the pledge was not redeemed. Disappointment writ large on the faces of the turmeric growers who initially counted the BJP’s electoral wins as their own.
The ink had dried on the bond paper, but the BJP-led Union government did not deliver on its promise of a turmeric board.
As recently as in March this year, Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industries Anupriya Patel reportedly meddled with the exercise to set up the board.
She argued that the Ministry of Commerce had set up a Spice Board, which was good enough to do the job for the turmeric farmers. She referred to the Regional Office and Extension Centre of the Spice Board created in Nizamabad in December 2020.
Before Elections, #BJP candidate promises on bond paper they’ll give ‘Turmeric Board’
— YSR (@ysathishreddy) March 30, 2023
Farmers resorted to protests again. Some of them even turned violent. There were attacks on the vehicles of the MP, Dharmapuri Arvind.
Ranga Rao summarised the situation: “The attempt was half-hearted; people were unsatisfied with the Spice Board. It was not completely dedicated to the turmeric farmers as it would have been decided from Delhi and would have to compete with other spices within the board.”
It was time for the BRS to capitalise on the situation. The party constantly highlighted the BJP’s inability to fulfil the promise of a board in the district.
Even on 1 October, in anticipation of the arrival of Prime Minister Modi to Telangana to address a public meeting in Mahbubnagar, the BRS displayed hundreds of posters listing the unmet promises of the BJP, including the board.
Sai Reddy said the farmers made a representation to the Union government for a minimum price of ₹10,000 per tonne. They said they could provide 60 percent if the state government made up the rest. However, the BRS government did not even consider the proposal.
It seemed more concerned that the BJP was not setting up the turmeric board. The state government was only playing politics, he said.
Modi shows the yellow card
However, Modi, while inaugurating various development projects, announced the formation of the National Turmeric Board.
The prime minister said: “This is also why we made a promise in Mahabubnagar itself, a promise we have fulfilled: The establishment of a National Turmeric Board. This initiative will help promote turmeric on a global scale.”
Ranga Rao exulted: “It was a long-awaited demand of the people of Telangana; it came late but came at the right time.”
As far as Nizamabad MP Dharmapuri was concerned, it was a landmark moment for farmers.
“Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of the National Turmeric Board is a testament to BJP’s commitment to uplift the lives of farmers in Telangana, especially in Nizamabad. This move will revolutionise turmeric farming, ensuring fair prices and global recognition,” he said.
The relief was unmissable in his statement on X. “Turmeric isn’t just a crop, it’s an integral part of our culture, used for health, culinary, and religious purposes. Its demand surged during the pandemic for its immune-boosting properties. The Turmeric Board addresses this, supporting both farmers and consumers.”
Normally, the prime minister makes an announcement, with or without referring to it in his posts on X. But it was an exception this time.
Modi made it a point to reply to Dharmapuri Arvind’s X post: “By establishing the National Turmeric Board, we aim to harness the potential of our turmeric farmers and give them the support they rightly deserve. The benefits for Nizamabad are particularly immense. We will keep doing whatever it takes to ensure a brighter future for our turmeric farmers.”
The well-being and prosperity of our farmers has always been our top priority.
By establishing the National Turmeric Board, we aim to harness the potential of our turmeric farmers and give them the support they rightly deserve.
The benefits for Nizamabad are particularly… https://t.co/xYazlleO07
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 2, 2023
Meanwhile, BRS is trying to push the narrative that establishing the National Turmeric Board is just an announcement, a promise which will not be fulfilled.
“It’s a joke, it’s been nine years; he could have done it nine years ago, he does it now; probably he put a small yellow board and left that’s what he meant by turmeric board,” said Telangana IT and Industries minister and BRS working president KT Rama Rao when the media asked for his reaction to the board.
“First Ram Madhav ji promised, Next Rajnath Singh ji promised, Today Modi ji promise…Hope Turmeric Board is not just an Election Promise,” BRS Spokesperson Krishank Manne said on X.
First Ram Madhav ji promised,
Next Rajnath Singh ji promised,
Today Modi ji promise…
Hope Turmeric Board is not just an Election Promise 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/Ef8aP74Gmv
— Krishank (@Krishank_BRS) October 1, 2023
Turmeric and the coming elections
The whole episode underscores how even a local issue can sometimes resonate at the hustings in a Lok Sabha election.
The demand was not the Telangana farmers’ alone. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu want a board too.
At the Global Turmeric Conference 2023 in Mumbai on 27 September, Shiv Sena MP from Hingoli, representing Maharashtra, highlighted the long-standing efforts to establish a turmeric board in their state. In Tamil Nadu, DMK MP DM Kathir Anand raised the issue of setting up a board in Vellore.
Telangana secured it first, possibly because of the impending elections and because the BJP is already positioning itself as a party that meets its commitments. As the man of the hour, Dharmapuri Arvind is preparing to contest in the forthcoming Assembly election.
The fact that the prime minister announced the board in Mahbubnagar is good enough leverage for a former MP, AP Jithendra Reddy, to exploit, saying the announcement came when Modi was in Mahbubnagar.
How significant would the leverage be for the BJP?
“While the immediate political gains in the upcoming Assembly elections may be limited, this move is expected to shape a new narrative for the BJP in the 2024 general elections and bring benefits to the party,” Ranga Rao said.