Saturday, November 17, 2007

Big business & retail: The Farmer Stands To Gain

By RG Maiti

Retail outlets, owned by corporate houses and dealing in agricultural produce, have of late been vandalised in Kolkata and other parts of the country. Whether or not the reasons are valid, the fact that political parties are taking the law into their own hands is not acceptable. According to the political leaders, the entry of big business will throw out of employment at least one lakh small traders in West Bengal alone. This argument is tenable only partially.
These leaders have considered the interests of the intermediate dealers, but have conveniently forgotten the farmers who constitute nearly 65 per cent of the population ~ around 650 million all over the country and 52 million in West Bengal. They do not produce the crops that are supplied through these intermediaries. The farmers have to contend with the risk of crop loss due to biotic factors such as the attacks of pests, floods, drought, and storms. The middlemen are not affected by such damage.
The majority of the farmers are poor. More than 10 per cent of them survive on one square meal a day for a few months of the year. Many die of hunger. Many more cannot afford medical care.

Perishable items

Fruit, vegetables and flowers are largely perishable. The growers hardly get 40 per cent of the price the consumers pay; the rest goes into the pockets of the middlemen.
The quality of the produce suffers in the hands of the intermediaries on account of bad packaging, contamination to make the vegetables look greener by dipping them in copper sulphate and indiscriminate use of pesticides. The last is a fairly common practice at the level of the middlemen in the mango orchards.
With the globalisation of trade the road to the foreign market, where the price is five to eight times higher, has opened up for our agricultural products both in fresh and processed farms. However, to be exportable, the quality of the articles must be of a high standard, free from pests and harmful pesticides. Organically produced materials are preferred by consumers who are ready to pay a higher price for such products. This calls for improved technology and genetically superior planting materials. Our farmers are capable enough provided they are paid suitably.
On the other hand, the big business houses are run by professionally-trained people. India, with its vast rural base, can be developed for industry if the purchasing power of the villagers can be improved. This goal can be achieved primarily through developing the different sectors of agriculture, horticulture being the most important.
The business houses have entered the sphere of foreign trade. Given their experience in export it will be easier for them to sell their agricultural produce abroad. To raise the quality of the merchandise, they will provide the growers with training in technology. The corporate sector has already entered certain major cities, such as Mumbai. It is a pleasure to visit these retail shops, complete with an air-conditioner, fogger, where the delicate vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, capsicum, lettuce, brinjal and other perishable items like rose, chrysanthemum, gerbera, gypsophila etc remain fresh for days. For raising the exportable items these business houses go in for organic production under direct supervision. Such products fetch a higher price.
In order to get a regular supply of the required quality and quantity of the materials for running their trade, the business houses may have to sign a contract with the growers. The government should ensure that the terms and conditions of the contract are acceptable to both parties.
In order to improve the economy of rural India the conventional system of farming needs modernisation. Tea, cashew, black pepper, cardamom, Basmati rice and some other agricultural commodities are traditional. In recent years, fruit, vegetables, flowers, spices, medicinal plants and some other items have entered the foreign market. But their quantity and corresponding percentage in the market share is meagre primarily because of inferior quality.
Favourable climate, good soil and cheap labour help to bring down the cost of production. The various temperature zones ~ tropical, sub-tropical and temperate ~ are favourable for all crops. To be a successful player in the foreign market, our farmers need training in modern technology and money for translating their knowledge in the field. For raising high value crops of flowers like orchid, carnation, rose lily etc, vegetables like gherkins, capsicum, and fruits like strawberry for export it is necessary to grow these crops under the greenhouse where environmental control may be necessary, particularly during the off season. Drip irrigation and fogging may be necessary both in the greenhouse and also in the field. This calls for a fair amount of investment, which the big players are in a position to provide to the poor farmers.
In the present system of marketing, the middlemen cannot possibly provide the essentials. They are not interested, still less aware, of modern agriculture. The political leaders, who are instigating their followers against the entry of big business houses into the retail marketing of agricultural produce, do not appear to be concerned with the welfare of our rural folk, who are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture.
These leaders should have learnt the lesson from their past mistakes of opposing the entry of computers in the office. They feared that the employees would lose their jobs. They had tried to drive away Kentucky Fried Chicken and more recently the food chain of the McDonalds without success. The removal of English from the lower classes, made thousands of young people in West Bengal unfit for the jobs they sought. Frequent attempts to shut out the soft drink giant, Coca-Cola, have proved futile.

Cheap gimmick

The cheap gimmick to mislead the public is not likely to yield any tangible result. The farmers in general should resist any attempt to harm the retail shops of the business houses from where they will earn 20-40 per cent more for their produce than what these middlemen pay them.
Passing through various ups and downs over the past 60 years of independence, our people are gradually coming to their senses. They have now begun to realise that political leaders, mainly associated with the administration, are responsible for their poverty. West Bengal is fortunate to have at least one wise, honest and right-thinking person heading the government who sincerely thinks about the welfare of the people.
The time has come when those leaders who mislead should change their course, and begin to see reality. Pleasing their comrades and cadres, many of whom comprise the middlemen category, at the cost of farmers may eventually turn out to be counter-productive.
The farmers, who outnumber the middlemen, constitute a major chunk of the vote-bank. If the middlemen fail to mend their ways, they should be prepared to face public wrath, now all too evident in the western part of West Bengal.

The author is a retired Professor of Horticulture, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Mohanpur, Nadia