The disruption in supply chains as a result of the lockdown has spotlighted the relevance of a nearly two-decade-old initiative to reach fresh produce directly to consumers in Maharashtra, bypassing the mandis.
The essential features of this alternative market channel — decentralisation and direct-to-home delivery — will remain valuable even after the lockdown, when efforts to avoid crowding in the wholesale markets are likely to continue.
The idea is to create smaller, less congested markets in urban areas with the participation of farmers’ groups and Farmer Producer Companies (FPCs), so that growers of vegetables and fruit have direct access to consumers.
Maharashtra is one of a handful of states where FPCs are robust. The model, implemented by the state Agriculture Department and Maharashtra State Agricultural Marketing Board (MSAMB), requires urban and rural local bodies and other stakeholders to buy into the agricultural marketing chain.
The government and MSAMB identify farmer groups and FPCs, and form clusters; local bodies choose the market sites and link the markets for direct delivery to cooperative housing societies.
The model was introduced in the early 2000s. The FPCs and farmers’ groups are allotted space for weekly markets in municipal wards or localities. Some producers’ groups park pick-up trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables at the gates of housing societies. Locally produced vegetables are the bulk of the stock.
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Traffic of both buyers and sellers in these decentralised markets can be controlled more effectively than in wholesale mandis — a key advantage when social distancing is critical. Most FPCs have minimised contact, and have taken to selling pre-packed, customised packets of vegetables.
In several areas of Pune and Mumbai, the decentralised markets have given way to FPCs delivering directly to the gates of housing societies. The administration has set up telephone numbers in each district, to which residents can call in to pre-order vegetables.
The farmers’ groups have filled much of the gap created by the shuttering of wholesale markets. More than 200 FPCs are now supplying fresh vegetables in urban Maharashtra.
The start of the pandemic coincided with the peak vegetable harvesting season. As the markets were locked down, there was a threat to the crop in over 100 lakh hectares in the country. A significant part of the produce is several states has made its way to these markets, softening the blow to farmers.
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More importantly, larger numbers of vegetable growers in Maharashtra have got into direct selling to consumers. The practices of rudimentary packing, sorting and branding are being inculcated in farmers, as they pack and send pre-ordered packets to housing societies.
Direct marketing, although not a new concept in perishables, had thus far failed to get much traction among local farmers. Now, with mandis shut, rural entrepreneurs have stepped in to supply the demand in the cities. This exposure will likely help create alternative market chains that could continue even after more normal times return.
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