Once the infamous political battlefield centered on the construction of a car factory, Singur in West Bengal has become a beacon of hope for local farmers, who sell their produce wholesale at fair prices at a state government promoted marketplace. Dhruba Dasgupta takes a closer look.
Its 5.30 PM. Motor-driven vans loaded with potatoes, loudly announcing their arrival, place themselves on the weighbridge while others go about taking note of the weight. The stock is emptied and the vehicle is weighed again. Once the weight of the potatoes is inferred, the farmer proceeds to collect his slip, which contains his enrolment number, the unit price and the total price of the commodity, and he gets his price on a daily basis. So do all the vegetable vendors who come here everyday.
The venue is Singur in Hugli district of West Bengal. Once a political battlefield between the erstwhile ruling party and the present incumbent over the decision to industrialise this fertile land in favour of a car factory by Tata Motors, there is now a procurement hub here for perishable commodities such as vegetables and potatoes. The procurement hub is called Tapasi Malik Krishak Bajar (Tapashi Malik Farmers Market).
The procurement hub is one of the key outcomes of the Sufal Bangla project under the state’s Department of Agricultural Marketing, which was conceptualised with the objectives of procuring standard quality vegetables and fruits at a remunerative price from farmers and providing these to consumers at a reasonable price. In the process, farmers would also be empowered.
Functioning since October 2014, the procurement hub is the key supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to a chain of 41 retail mobile and static outlets all over state capital Kolkata and a few select places of other districts in Bengal. The project, which began as Kolkata Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Project, was christened Sufal Bangla Project by chief minister Mamata Banerjee in February 2015 to function under the Agricultural Marketing Department Project Management Unit. The idea was that the farmers should get remunerative prices if they grew good quality products, which would be supplied at a reasonable price to consumers. The procurement price would be declared at 2 PM everyday. It varies by district.
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There are 34 retail outlets directly operated by Sufal Bangla while 7 franchisee outlets have also begun operation in the districts. Out of these franchisee outlets, two are located in Bankura, one in Birbhum, three in Hooghly and the remaining in Kolkata. The uniqueness of this effort lies in speedy steps towards decentralisation whereby not just the main procurement hub but the franchisee outlets also perform their own procurement function, following the price control exercised by the Project Management Unit on a daily basis. There are also agreements in place with Mother Dairy as well as West Bengal Livestock Development Corporation to compulsorily supply milk and meat products to every retail outlet. This will ensure a complete basket of products to consumers.
Potatoes are the base crop with which the Singur procurement hub began its journey. Other procurement vegetables include pointed patal (pointed gourd), tomato, jhinga (ridge gourd), radish, carrot, capsicum, bitter gourd, cucumber, bottle gourd, pumpkin, green banana, brinjal, hyacinth beans and beans. Every farmer who wants to supply vegetables — there are about 1000 individual farmers and 50-60 Farmer Producer Organizations and Self Help Groups — has to have an enrolment number with Sufal Bangla.
Farmers from five village councils in and around Singur are the suppliers. Every morning between 9 am and 11.30 am, farmers willing to supply phone in and get their names, enrolment numbers and product names recorded. At 5.30 pm, the collection process starts. Every farmer’s product is weighed (the weighing facility is provided free of cost because the farmer is enrolled) and the price is agreed upon and the payment made.
“The price is fixed on the basis of comparative analysis of prices prevailing in the nearby markets during the day, and one of my tasks is to obtain these comparative prices and send them up to the Sufal Bangla Project Management Unit for follow-up and procurement price calculation,” says hub manager Mahaprasad Chatterjee. Working through the day, he is the life force behind the hub, which he does with precision and alert supervision.
Sorting and grading
After the products are procured, they are sorted and graded. Then they are readied for sale via 17 vehicles of the PMU (there are 45 vehicles in total) which travels to various retail points and supplies and sells the vegetables at various points in Kolkata and outside from 7-11.30 AM. Thereafter, the extras come back to Singur and get sold out through reduction sale.
What if there is over procurement of a certain vegetable on any given day? Prabuddha Guha of the PMU at Kolkata says “In fact, this does happen. If farmers bring an oversupply of tomatoes which is more than our daily procurement requirement, we tell them that excess procurement on that day will mean that procurement of that specific vegetable will be closed for the next day, and they accept our terms. Our idea is to provide vegetables and allied products that are fresh and healthy, and we cannot allow this basic principle to be compromised. After all, that is what Sufal Bangla is all about,” he told VillageSquare.in.
“Our quality control laboratory at Singur specializes in physical testing and subsequently when we have our complete set-up at Rajarhat for organic food products we will have in place physico-chemical testing arrangements with a full-fledged laboratory to ensure organic food products,” said Goutam Mukherjee, scientist and head of the Sufal Bangla unit in Kolkata.
Subrata Khamaru comes from Singal Pathak village, 9 km away from the procurement center. He has been supplying for three years and today he has with him crates of beans, chili and bottle gourd. Pradip Biswas, who stands beside him, has come from Ranaghat in the neighboring district and supplies about 1,000 pieces of lemon. Ranaghat is 53 km from Singur. He has been supplying for one and a half years. “We have substantially benefitted from this procurement center,” Biswas told VillageSquare.in.
“The intensity of farming has gone up substantially after this center started functioning fully,” says Chatterjee. He should know. Having been here since inception, his day starts at 8 am and ends at 10 pm. Though he pragmatically admits that middlemen will not be completely done away with in more remote areas, he optimistically points out that government intervention has substantially increased. In terms of sales, July sales last year stood at Rs 77.53 lakh while sales in May stood at 37.89 lakh.
The quality control laboratory and quality testing instruments test for rice and a clutch of 10 vegetables based on pre-programmed information. Run by the Centre for Development in Advanced Computing, the laboratory’s most well known product is Annadarpan Smart, which uses vibration analysis to detect firmness of fruits and vegetables. Partha Sarathi Biswas explains the details of rice detection analysis. “The software inside warns if there is admixture of more than 5% in case of any rice sample. Agmark Net Standard is followed. This kind of testing facilitates both a producers’ assurance and a consumer’s good health.” CDAC will soon start a mobile app which will give details of comparative market prices and be a great help to producers seeking remunerative prices for their products.
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The success is not without its challenges. Prabuddha Guha points out that due to unplanned production in the hinterland of the hub, they often end up buying more of one type of vegetable they do not require in such huge quantity and are sometimes also faced with crisis when the required quantity cannot be procured. “We have had many meetings with the panchayat heads requesting a production planning exercise. It is only recently that the relevance of this exercise in preventing wastage and getting a profitable price has been understood. Let us hope that we can streamline the system even more,” he signs off hopefully.
Dhruba Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based writer.