On Sunday, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was probably inspired by the Zero Gravity foundation, an NGO in Nagpur, his home town, to hold a weekly vegetable market at the Vidhan Bhavan where farmers directly sold their produce to customers at prices attractive to both.
Zero Gravity first organised a farmers’ market on the vast campus of their Sandipani school in Nagpur on October 31, last year.
It was a tentative effort by Maitreyi Jichkar, daughter of former Maharashtra finance minister, Dr Shrikant Jichkar, the inventor of “zero budgeting”, who was himself a farmer and understood the perils of the agrarian sector well.
Hindustan Times first reported this unique effort at the time when Maitreyi told our associate editor Pradip Maitra in Nagpur that with farmers committing suicide all around them, she was urged to do something, however small, in their interest.
This ‘small’ effort, however, has obviously turned big. Not only did the first market in October sell out within hours, but the unique effort also caught the imagination of the people in Nagpur and they began to look forward to the weekly Saturday market on the outskirts of the city.
The first time, it was difficult for the NGO to fix the prices. But then they decided that the farm fresh vegetables will be sold at half the retail price – that was attractive to both the consumers who got them cheap and the farmers who were deprived of much of their profit by middle men.
Now with Fadnavis’ initiative to bring similar markets to Bombay and Thane, Zero Gravity’s efforts have paid off hugely. But while the effort by an NGO can be appreciated as a sincere attempt to help farmers, when the government steps into the enterprise in an official capacity, it is in danger of turning into gimmickry if not backed by sustainable policies and programmes.
While I am appreciative of Fadnavis’s effort to widen the base of the farmers’ markets, I believe, as a chief minister he is in a better position with his access to policy makers to bring succour to farmers – and not just with such tokenism as a few weekly markets.
Hailing from Vidarbha, Fadnavis well knows what really ails the farmers of the region – and much of this sickness comes from government policies from the past decades.
Firstly, the development backlog in Vidarbha is really huge but when it comes to farmers, one must also look at how liberalisation and the free market economy has actually worked to the detriment of farmers rather than in their interest.
Speaking of the cotton farmers in the region, among whom suicides are greatly prevalent even to this day, I wonder why no one realised that while the US, the world’s largest cotton producer, subsidises its farmers heavily for their produce, we have, by and large under US pressure, failed to bring similar benefits to our own cotton growers.
Our policy makers accepted the American argument that subsidising Indian cotton farmers will affect the market economy adversely but no one made counter arguments to favour our own farmers.
But even if we leave aside the ill effects of liberalisation on our farmers, Vidarbha is a region which even today is wholly dependent on the vagaries of nature for its crop survival.
There are hardly any irrigation facilities to speak of, there is very little research in terms of pest control or compost management, etc.
“Children of farmers are educated to be office workers, not agriculturists,’’ says noted economist and former professor of Nagpur University Shrinivas Khandewale. “How then, do you expect farming to be a lucrative profession?’’
Nagpur is also famous for its oranges and, appropriately, a central citrus research institute is located in the region. Despite that there has been little development in terms of maximising the produce or even towards the development of a processing industry.
In the years before liberalisation, a few enterprising youngsters got together to set up the Nagpur Orange Growers’ Association (NOGA) in order to bottle the juice and make jams and marmalades. Far from helping the enterprise along, the government aided other bigger brands to drive them down until they shut shop altogether.
So while such Sunday markets are quaint and evocative of similar markets in Paris and London in the past centuries, a more modern 21st century approach geared towards enterprise, industry and shielding farmers from global upheavals might go a longer way in making their lives, well, more liveable. It might even put an end to the farmers committing suicides.