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Farm-fresh scheme rots in apathy

- Freezer vans meant to ferry fruits, vegetables to capital doorstep defunct for eight months

All good things have an expiry date. In this state, their shelf life is only shorter.

Mobile Fresh, an ambitious project launched by Jharkhand State Horticulture Mission more than two years ago to deliver fruits and vegetables on Ranchi’s doorstep in refrigerated vans, is today a rotting remembrance of its past self.

Of the four equipped vehicles that were rolled out in November 2011, three have been gathering dust and rust on Krishi Bhavan premises in Kanke for eight months now officially because their freezers are kaput. Theft of various parts has impaired these vans further, crippling a scheme that once benefited farmers and consumers.

While fruit and vegetable growers are again at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen to reach their produce to city markets, Ranchi is on the verge of forgetting the taste of fresh, healthy and affordable breakfast. Given its sudden indisposition, the project never saw the light of day in Jamshedpur, Bokaro, Dhanbad, Deoghar and Hazaribagh as was planned.

According to agriculture department officials, the refrigerated vans with temperature control units were procured in 2007 for Rs 1 crore and the Jharkhand State Adivasi Co-Operative Vegetable Marketing Federation Limited (Vegfed) was roped in to operate them. Vegfed, which is an umbrella for 100-odd co-operative societies, launched the project four years later only to apply brakes within a year.

Currently, only one Mobile Fresh van operates in Chanho block, confirmed state horticulture mission director Prabhakar Singh who claimed Vegfed was not keen on running the service owing to maintenance hassles.

“After the vans were purchased, we entrusted Vegfed with the job of ferrying farm fresh-fruits and vegetables to the doorstep of Ranchi’s residents. The pilot project was a success until maintenance issues cropped up. Now, the cooling units are having problems. We requested Vegfed to scout for ways to resume service. It is yet to respond positively,” Singh said.

R.N. Jha, the managing director of Vegfed, has been shunted recently. His successor, who joined a couple of days ago, refused to be quoted because he had little idea about the project’s status.

A Vegfed official, however, confirmed that they had received the letter from the mission director. “But, we are unable to give you a timeframe for resuming the Mobile Fresh services across Ranchi,” he said.

Principal secretary (agriculture) Nitin Madan Kulkarni promised to look into the matter after discussions with Singh. “I am in Delhi. After I return, we will try to restart operations,” he said.

“We are dependent on middlemen to supply our produce to the market. Fruits and vegetables are perishable items. By the time they reach customers, they lose their freshness in the absence of the refrigerator vans. In such a case, prices take a beating,” said Md Izaz, a farmer in Bero.

Singh said they were mulling a way around. “We may provide farmer groups freezer vans on 50 per cent and also help them rustle up the rest of the money through bank loans.”

Easier said than done perhaps. So, for the time being, farmers can hope against hope for fair prices.