Ribbed gourd looks less of a rip-off and brinjal is back to being a shopping-bag staple barely two days after the government stepped up the heat on hoarders and middlemen.
Prices showed signs of softening across wholesale and retail markets on Wednesday with most vegetables selling between 30 and 100 per cent lower than last Monday’s rates. The sudden slump confirmed what was long suspected — that man-made factors trigger price rise more than supply-side constraints.
Metro has been reporting, backed by expert opinion, how unscrupulous profiteering by a section of middlemen, wholesalers and retailers has dented household budgets.
Salt Lake homemaker Arpita Chatterjee, who had been forced to cut down on her buying, was pleasantly surprised when she went to do her vegetable shopping at CA market on Wednesday morning.
“I bought chillies and ribbed gourd for half the price I had paid on Monday. I am happy but also puzzled that the graph can change so drastically in two days,” she said.
At Koley Market in Sealdah, the wholesale hub for vegetables, prices fell almost by half. The price of a palla (5kg) of green chilli on Wednesday was Rs 200, against Rs 350-Rs 550 on Monday.
Shoppers at Maniktala market bought ribbed gourd (jhinge) for Rs 20-25 a kilo, overnight down from an unreasonable range of Rs 40-45. Green chilli, whose hotness quotient had more to do with price than its performance on the Scoville scale, came down from its Rs 200-a-kilo perch to Rs 80-100.
Agricultural marketing minister Arup Roy gave chief minister Mamata Banerjee “full credit” for bringing down prices in less than 48 hours. “She personally tracked the market,” he said at Writers’.
The 11-member committee has been visiting wholesale and retail markets in the city over the past two days to collate prices and arrive at a realistic price graph.
“We have been meeting at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to take stock. The secretaries of agriculture, agriculture marketing and food supplies are briefing the chief minister,” said a member of the monitoring committee.
Experts said stock market-like price fluctuations — nowhere more apparent than in the cadences of the chilli graph that Metro had highlighted on Wednesday — were the prime indicator of manipulative market forces at work.
Wholesalers and retailers admitted that focused monitoring by the government had sucked volatility out of the market. “The quantity of vegetables coming to the markets has almost doubled,” said Uttam Mukherjee, secretary of the Koley Market Wholesalers’ Association.
While government officials were gloating about the impact of monitoring, city-based agricultural marketing experts questioned the possibility of knee-jerk intervention having a lasting impact on prices.
“Everyone knew that the spike in vegetable prices was because of profiteering. The government ensured fairness in the system through increased vigil. But the question is whether the prices can be maintained at these levels for a longer period,” said Satyabrata Mukherjee, an agri-preneur and president of the West Bengal Cold Chain and Cold Storage Owners’ Association.
According to him, the market is characterised by distortions where wholesalers and aggregators — phore in market parlance — dictate prices.
Prices go up as crops travel from the farm to the food plate, benefiting mainly the middlemen, who scoop up margins at every stage of transhipment.
“Unless a parallel system of marketing is put in place and farmers are given the opportunity to reach buyers directly, fair price for buyers and a better deal for farmers cannot be ensured,” Mukherjee said.
The government has an agricultural marketing department whose responsibility it is to market produce, regulate storage and monitor supply. But that’s on paper. Farmers get hardly any support.
“Transportation cost is already very high and if I am unable to sell my entire stock, I would have to spend more to bring it back. So it is better to sell my produce in the local market, although I know I am getting only a minuscule percentage of the actual price,” said Pradip Kundu, a farmer in Tarakeshwar.