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Micro market management

Middlemen rampantly exploit the tribal markets where a lack of awareness on pricing further impoverishes the tribal farmer.

Micro market management

It is Friday—the weekly market day in Lohandiguda, close to the famous Chitrakoot Waterfalls in Bastar. Sonmati has been preparing for this day for a week now. Her husband had felled ripe tamarind pods from a tree in their farmstead and Sonmati had manually removed the shell, the fibre and then decorticated the pod to remove the seeds. What she now has is a basket full of the decorticated tamarind, locally known as 'phool imli'.

The produce must be around eight kilograms. Sonmati recognises this as a head-load. She will carry it to the market in Lohandiguda, some ten kilometres away from her village. She will then sell it to a person she recognises only by face. She does not know his name and neither does she know that he is the first link in the supply chain. He is an operative of a big merchant in Jagdalpur and wily ways are his qualification for trade. He will 'buy' the tamarind from Sonmati grumbling that she has sprinkled it with water to increase its weight. He will then under-weigh it on a huge scale, deducting one kilogram for the basket that weighs just about 350 grams. He will deduct another kilogram against sukti-jhukti, the considerable factor of moisture loss and difference in scales. He will fudge the math a little more when computing the amount payable. He knows the illiterate Sonmati cannot understand math. Sonmati will protest, not because she understands the wrong done but because her protest will help her get something more, maybe a packet of cheap biscuits.
That is the standard profile of trade in tribal haat bazaars. There are an estimated ten crore tribals in India. Nearly half of them live in the forests, like Sonmati. Non-timber forest produces and the surplus of agricultural produce are their main source of cash. Haat bazaars are the markets where they exchange their produce for cash. There is no 'eye of the state' here to oversee that the exchange is fair for the tribal. One study done in Bastar estimated that the loss due to improper weighing, unfair deductions and fudged math aggregate to over 55 per cent!
The trade in around 5,000 tribal haat bazaars in India is estimated to be worth over Rs 2,00,000 crores, per year. A report of the CAG estimated that the tribal receives less than 20 per cent of the value of his produce; the rest is passed on to the middleman. While the CAG report called for strong government intervention, a Parliamentary Committee said the same.
Given the scenario, when discussing trade and commerce pertaining to low-end trade like forest produces at the grass-root level, we should remember that we are not dealing with trade in isolation. We are dealing with issues of equity and state support for the vulnerable sections of our society. We are dealing with social welfare and justice. We are also dealing with livelihood and all that relates to it. In the case of forest produce, there is an added concern of burning importance, namely, environment. These are all issues that are inseparable from good governance. These are issues that form a part of the constitutional duties imposed upon the state. If we shy away from such involvement, we fail in our duties towards a segment of our people who need our support the most.
Free trade is fair only among equals, or between parties who are on a common plane of education, calibre and trade-skills. If there is inequality between them, there is bound to be subsequent inequity. If the difference between them is very wide, there is bound to be exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. This is the situation prevailing in the roadside weekly markets of a forest district.
One part is a sharp trader and another part is a forest-gatherer, who has no scientific idea of pricing, no idea of even weights and measurements. He does not understand simple arithmetic. It is not a matter of coincidence that left-wing extremism still continues to flourish in tribal-forest areas. The state spends huge amounts to fight this evil by extending various welfare programs. If the trade in the tribal haat bazaars can be made fair and equitable to the tribal, the state can achieve over four times the amount it invests in welfare programs.
The government is alive to this need. It has programs like the Minimum Support Price for Minor Forest Produces (MSP for MFP). However, much more needs to be done to counter the strong forces that have managed to rule the tribal haats, by making these markets look insignificant. Trade-centric tribal development is perhaps the apt route for pursuing the goal of economic upliftment of the tribals.
Strengthening the haat bazaars to be procurement units for the tribals, as this is where s/he goes to sell his produces, (which after FRA and PESA he rightfully owns) is the core activity. Thereafter, setting up an extensive institutionalised Processing Units for Value Addition holds the key to tribal prosperity. Tamarind sells for Rs 25/kg. Remove the seed, it goes up to Rs 125/kg, whereas, the mahua sauce out of it, sells for Rs. 400.
The benefits of such value addition need to be shared with the tribal population to ensure they receive their appropriate returns. The MSP for MFP can do this. All states must join hands and step forward.
(The author is Managing Director, Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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