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How about a cold chain train, Laluji?

Lalu Prasad may need to start a cold-chain express train which would zip across the country to help farmers fetch better prices, writes Narayanan Madhavan.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2007 02:50 IST

Mango, for many young people, is a brand for trendy clothes. Happily for me, it remains a favourite fruit. But mangoes need brands too. The Alphonso is a trusted favourite as a geographical appellation and others, like French wine, have acquired their own location-based aura, like Banganapalli in Andhra Pradesh and Malihabad near Lucknow.

Now, news comes from Krishnagiri, the Tamil Nadu district bordering Karnataka that mango farmers in the area are contributing Rs 1,000 each as equity to create a consortium that will sell their pulpy Thothapuri mangoes under a specially created brand, Krishmaa.

As a youngster watching western economies, I used to be fascinated by Californian citrus brand Sunkist and Chiquita bananas. This was an India where only a few years earlier, you had to queue up to get milk. Over the years, Dr Verghese Kurien made milk abundant enough to be branded and sold to help farmers get remunerative prices. Krishmaa is openly inspired by Dr Kurien’s Amul movement and will be using the Safal Exchange created by the institution he built — the National Dairy Development Board. Clearly, farmers need to get a piece of the action and brand premium that have so far been the preserve of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies.

The flip side of this would be that farmers needed to ensure quality and logistics to match their brands. Brands give identity and may yield a premium. But volumes must be sufficient to justify spending on brand-building. To ensure that there are enough mangoes to justify the supply chain, farmers need to spend on irrigation, crop insurance and pest control as well. This would mean raising the bar – and the costs.

All that would be worth it if only the resulting volumes could result in remunerative prices. I think this can be sustainable only if wagon-loads of mangoes could move from places like Krishnagiri to markets across the country.

This would in turn need cold-chain logistics that are efficient and cost effective enough to move fast to places where demand is good enough to fetch a premium. Farmers know old tricks about how to preserve mangoes and transport them and we also have agricultural extension experts who can help them with modern methods.

However, all said and done, there could be a case for efficient transport of mangoes or mango pulp — and dozens of other perishable commodities — across the nation. Logistics companies are getting sophisticated by the day. They have introduced Internet-based tracking and door-to-door delivery which is helping online customers buy Alphonso mangoes. In the coming days, they would be better off boosting or introducing cold-chain based links. Cold chain logistics have a long way to go in India. Reliance, Wal-Mart and other retail players are set to trigger a revolution (and business opportunities) in this field.

Now is also the time for our railway minister, Lalu Prasad, to get right his Next Big Thing. Having lectured management students at Harvard and Ahmedabad on how he made the Indian Railways a very sexy brand, he may need to start a cold-chain express train which would zip across the country to help farmers fetch better prices.

Two years ago, the railway affiliate, Container Corporation of India, had abandoned its cold chain plans. The minister needs to revisit the whole thing, at least to start a wholesale train in partnership with private logistics players.

The cold chain train, if it comes to pass, could be a case study for Wharton Business School students, or for social anthropologists trying to map the rise of a cowherd who helped golden mangoes acquire a global glow.