The anaj mandi at Amritsar will not forget 2015 easily.
For the first time, the state's long-grained basmati rice, famous for its fragrance, is selling cheaper than the humble parimal variety procured by the Indian government for its public distribution programme. Just two years ago, the variety favoured by local farmers, labelled '1121', fetched about Rs 4,200 a quintal. This year, it is selling at Rs 1,700.
The villages and districts surrounding Amritsar constitute the state's Majha region. Predominantly agrarian, especially after the slow death of textile mills, the region's principal crop is basmati. To its east and south-east, lies the Doaba region, which grows potatoes and cane. Further south, lies the cotton-belt of Malwa.
Each of these is under stress right now. The cotton crop in Malwa has been hurt by a whitefly infestation. The cane factories of Doaba are in distress. And the global downturn in commodities has hammered basmati prices.
A drop in prices doesn't hurt just the farmers. It also affects traders, workers and those dependent on them.
In the Amritsar grain market, the mood is pensive. It is 3 in the afternoon. One set of hammals – workers who load and unload the grain at the market yard – are sitting in a tent strung up between two shops.
The tent is a ramshackle construction. A roof stitched together from assorted fabrics. Inside, five men are sitting on a wooden platform while three others squat on gunny sacks spread over the dirt-floor, making chai over a small kerosene stove.
There is no work, says Gurdev Singh. "We have not unloaded a single truck since morning." Farmers, they say, are holding their produce at home, waiting to see if prices improve, selling only what they absolutely must.
The lack of grain arrivals is hammering the hammals. Singh, with his salt and pepper beard and an amused mien, says workers like him make Rs 1 for every 35 kg bag they unload, which goes upto Rs 1.20 for every 50 kilo bag. But As mandi arrivals have plummeted this year, their earnings have fallen too.
Harnam Singh, another young hammal, calls out to me as I photograph the mandi. Can I photograph him with his mother, he asks, adding that he will send me a phone number where I can send the picture via Whatsapp.
The young boy and his mother smile for the camera, even though they aren't facing pleasant times. “In a good year, we can make as much as Rs 80,000-90,000 in the season," he says. But this year, he expects to make no more than Rs 50,000.