July 3: Pradip Kundu, a small farmer in Hooghly district, refuses to believe what he just heard.
The ribbed gourd (jhinge) Kundu grows in his eight cottahs fetches him between Rs 5 and Rs 6 a kilo but shoppers in Calcutta are paying Rs 40 to Rs 45 for the same vegetable.
“It’s unbelievable,” the 50-year-old farmer exclaimed in dismay, told about the skyrocketing prices in the last-mile markets in the past few weeks.
Kundu had just unloaded three jhooris (bamboo baskets) from a motor van after travelling 5km from his village, Keshabchak, to sell the produce at the local haat near Tarakeshwar station.
A rise in the price to some extent is inevitable because of the distance and the number of intermediaries involved. But a 700 per cent spurt (from Rs 5 to Rs 40) suggests profiteering by a section of middlemen who control the supply chain of vegetables from farm to food plates.
The usual suspects — an unprecedented summer and delayed rains — have also played a role as farmers like Kundu have harvested at least 25 per cent less than the crop in normal years.
While the so-called short supply has pushed up prices in city markets, Kundu’s price realisation has remained almost the same. The unjust paradox exposes the inadequacies of a system — where middlemen rig prices and force consumers to pay more but farmers do not gain — that few have dared to clean up.
“The production has of course been hit but it is not that acute that the prices have to go up so much,” said Kundu, who has spent his life farming vegetables for bulk buyers, known as fore (can be loosely defined as an aggregator), from Sheoraphuli.
This reporter witnessed how Kundu’s crop changed hands first when a man in his early fifties approached the farmer as soon as the bamboo baskets were deposited on the ground at the crowded marketplace near Tarakeshwar station.
A round of bargaining followed and a deal was sealed. “Depending on the variety, he is paying me Rs 5 and Rs 6 per kg,” said Kundu as the aggregator moved to another farmer.
The aggregators are a key cog in the supply chain — each buys in excess of 200kg to reap the benefits of economies of scale. They survive on margins after paying transportation costs and taking the produce to wholesale markets closer to the city.
Murli Bhishan Prasad, in his early sixties, is one such aggregator. He procures vegetables from farmers in Tarakeshwar block and takes it to his arat (godown) in the Sheoraphuli wholesale market, where another set of aggregators wait for him.
After procuring close to 1,000kg of ribbed gourd, brinjal, tomato and lemon, Prasad sets out for Sheoraphuli, 25km from Tarakeshwar, in two light commercial vehicles by paying around Rs 500 each.
The distance is covered in 45 minutes and he arrives at Sheoraphuli by 7am, where more aggregators — who will take the vegetables to the markets in Calcutta — are waiting.
Depending on the quality of the ribbed gourd, the product is sold between Rs 10 and Rs 12 a kg. Brinjals, which were selling between Rs 8 and Rs 10 a kg at Tarakeshwar, are selling at Rs 16 to Rs 20 a kg here.
“Before fixing my selling price, I have to factor in a lot of costs, including transportation, labour, pilferage, wastage and other overheads,” said Prasad.
On Tuesday, by the time the two vegetables reached Koley market, the price of ribbed gourd had shot up between Rs 20 and Rs 22 a kilo and that of brinjal between Rs 32 and Rs 40 a kilo. After another round of hike, the products reach the kitchens of Calcutta. (See chart)
If the movement of price from one market to the next is tracked, it is evident that the price tends to double with each change of hands. The uniformity — doubling at each stage — is an intriguing factor as the costs involved at each stage are different.
“Retailers do not buy huge quantities and the transportation is usually within the city and is not that expensive. The chances of pilferage and wastage is also less. There is no logic to the doubling of price between the wholesale market in Sealdah and the retail market in Maniktala,” said an agriculture marketing expert who did not wish to be named as he has been called for the 11-member price monitoring committee formed by the chief minister.
According to him, the ideal price of ribbed gourd should be between Rs 26 and Rs 30 while that of brinjal should be between Rs 40 and Rs 45.