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In Latur, a window to the world

Whether it’s agricultural warehousing or preparing students for vital exams, this town has unique models that combine the modern with the common sense. Sumana Ramanan reports.

india Updated: Oct 07, 2009 01:17 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Two times out of three, when Hemant Vaidya’s cellphone beeps, what pops into his inbox are prices of soybean, tur dal, jawar and other agricultural commodities in various markets around the country and abroad.

These days, he is monitoring soybean prices particularly carefully because the harvest from the hinterland is due to arrive any time.

Then, when thousands of farmers line up outside his warehouse with their carts heaped with produce, he will have to decide how much of the crop to buy and at what price.

“Agricultural production has to be monitored the way a doctor keeps an eye on a patient in the ICU,” says Vaidya (46), standing in one of his warehouses near sunflower and jawar fields just outside this town, dwarfed by two-storey-high stacks of fumigated gunny bags stuffed with farm produce, some of which were harvested more than two years ago.

He will ship them to clients when the price is right.

Vaidya willingly took on the pressure five years ago by winding up his thriving electrical motors maintenance-and-repair firm and setting up Kisan Warehousing because he sensed a good business opportunity in Latur, a town with a population of about 5 lakh people, which is situated in eastern Maharashtra and is the hometown of Vilasrao Deshmukh, a former chief minister and now Union minister.

For years, Latur, like Indore and Nagpur, has been a major national centre for the trade of agricultural commodities, its growth mirroring Deshmukh’s political rise.

So it’s not surprising that development has accelerated over the past five years, with the town acquiring the financial infrastructure and transport links so crucial to facilitating a business like Vaidya’s.

Today, the town has branches of all major Indian banks, easing the money transfers that underpin commodity trade.

The town got a direct rail connection to Mumbai a year ago and to Hyderabad four years ago.

This offered dealers a quicker and more reliable alternative to road transport for sending produce to clients in other parts of the country and abroad via key ports such as Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, which handles 40 per cent of India’s cargo, and the one at Visakhapatnam. Just six months ago, Kingfisher Airlines began a Mumbai-Latur flight three times a week.

All this means that Vaidya does not have to set foot outside the town even when he occasionally sells soybean to dealers in Argentina or China.

“As long as my mobile phone works, I’m in business,” says Vaidya.

If Vaidya represents one side of Latur’s economic dynamism, that of agri-business, Mangesh Kulkarni (29) embodies the other, the coaching class sector.

Latur has long been known for its students’ success in the Class 10 state board exams. Over the years, locals realised this Latur ‘pattern’ of drilling could be branded.

In the past five years, a host of coaching classes has sprung up to train students both for the state board and the entrance exam for professional colleges, attracting youngsters from all over the state.

The classes are concentrated in the Signal Camp area, where Kulkarni helps his father run the Physics Career Academy.

The Academy began more than a decade ago as a large tuition centre, but today trains 2,000 students a year. Kulkarni takes care of the administration, including running a hostel for students from out of town, while his father, a former college lecturer, does all the teaching.

“The whole town has developed a common spirit for training students,” says Kulkarni junior.

What happens to this town over the next five years will depend a lot on Deshmukh’s son Amit (33), the Congress candidate who is a favourite to win.

“The town needs to take the next leap,” says Amit, a Mumbai-educated chemical engineer, sitting in the offices of Ekmat, a newspaper his family owns. “Expectations are high. We have to now try to bring industry here and create more jobs.”