It is 9 PM on a humid Bastariya evening, a month after the horrid Sukma attacks. We are sitting with Somari Manjhi in Harihar Bazaar, watching her deftly count the earnings for the day. “24,540!” she proudly exclaims, and then goes on to count it again as a soft smile adorns her lips. Later, Manjhi wraps the creased notes in a green plastic bag, and meticulously locks the bag in a small metal box. Safeguarding the key in the corner of her sari, she bids us goodbye, and leaves for her village, Tarapur, located 22 km. west of Jagdalpur, Bastar.
Somari Manjhi is a part of Harihar Bazaar, a federation of 22 Farmer Producer Groups with over 3,500 farmers as active members, that has taken the town of Jagdalpur by storm. The 5-month old federation functions from the seller’s mart in Jagdalpur, and sells a variety of organic produce, including vegetables, milk and dairy products, a variety of rice and pulses, millets, and processed products like tamarind candies, tomato ketchup, etc.
With monthly sales of over ₹2 lakh, and monthly profits of over ₹50,000, Harihar Bazaar handles an average footfall of around 250 customers per day, who buy over 1.5 tonnes of produce in a day.
“While we are happy about our increasing profits, the figures are not our motivation at this juncture. A lot of us farmers are tired of the indignities of the agricultural market, of bearing the brunt of the price volatility, and we aim to overcome just that,” said Damrudhar Sinha, one of the directors of Harihar Bazaar and a 35-year-old farmer from Baniyagaon.
In fact, safeguarding farmers’ interests was the driving force behind the inception of Harihar Bazaar. “2,200 of us had doubled our yields through practicing labour-intensive organic farming under the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana. We had hoped to receive higher returns by supplying high-quality produce, but the market forces were apathetic and even hostile. This is when we decided to create a marketplace for ourselves. We met the District Collector of Bastar, Amit Kataria, and convinced him to guide us through,” recollected Sonadei.
The District Administration successfully provided the initial thrust to the group and constructed a selling-space in the heart of Jagdalpur, under the condition that the farmers collectivize themselves into small producer groups and organically evolve policies that ensure quality and protect farmers’ interests.
The farmers shouldered the responsibility of organizing themselves into individual producer groups, and held over 90 meetings in different villages to get other farmers on board.
Today, Harihar Bazaar is a consortium of four Farmer Producer Companies, five cooperatives, and 13 women SHGs, and is making great strides to create a risk-free space for the farmers. The prices of several goods are fixed on a fortnightly basis, and are not dependent on the on-going market rates. “We let the production cost and quality of our produce determine the price, and not the market forces. Once, we managed to sell more than 100 kg. of cauliflower at ₹10 higher than the prevailing market rate, because our regular customers had faith in the quality our products,” narrated Khoguram proudly.
Interestingly, the federation’s policy of including labour costs while determining prices for the produce makes it attractive for farmers. “Even though I own only one acre of land, I feel like I own 10. Harihar Bazaar is restoring our pride and hope in the system,” said Mosuram, a rice farmer from Kilepal village.
Harihar Bazaar is a beacon of hope for the farmers of Bastar. But we wonder whether such initiatives hold the key to India’s agricultural woes. The initiative is a bottom-up approach to bring business and agriculture together through collective action. Since the initiative has been designed to collectivize smallholder farmers to overcome their challenges; it can potentially be an effective tool for promoting grassroot entrepreneurship. Furthermore, it has the advantage of being local, and the ability to integrate local knowledge to create sustainable livelihoods.
Certain factors can potentially come in the way of running Harihar Bazaar successfully. These include lack of efficient leadership, difficulty in garnering financial support, logistical issues, inefficient business skills, etc. However, adequate support from the government and a place in agricultural policies can really help. Attention from civil society organizations can encourage collectivization and narrow the gap between farmers and markets.