Prison Bazaar delivers fresh, organic produce straight from the farm in the Open Air Jail.

Madhu, Gandhi and Raghavan wake up every morning at 6 and are at their 30.72-acre farm by 6.30. They de-weed, plough and plant seeds in neat rows. They raise brinjal, radish, beetroot, ladies finger, spinach, drumstick, tamarind and coconut using organic manure. They are inmates of the Open Air Jail in Ondipudur who have taken to farming.

Now, their produce is sold in the newly-launched Prison Bazaar at the Jail Grounds on Nanjappa Road. They three are all smiles as they sell vegetables under the supervision of prison staff.

P. Govindarajan, Deputy Inspector General of Prisons, Coimbatore Range, says the Bazaar is an attempt to rehabilitate and re-socialise prisoners. It seems to have gotten off to a great start. On day one, the store was open for just an hour. The revenue? Rs. 4,500. The products are marketed under the ‘Freedom’ brand of the Tamil Nadu Prison Department.

The prisoners are well occupied in this venture. Gandhi is heard mentioning how it keeps him from missing his family. Madhu apparently wanted to become a farmer. “Life took me elsewhere, but I am finally living my childhood dream,” he tells Raghavan. Raghavan shares how he felt holding the first ear of corn he cultivated. “It was a very proud moment to see something I’d planted give fruit,” he says.

At 9.30 a.m., the first batch of still-wet palak comes in, fresh from the farm. Auto driver C. Ramesh immediately picks up two big bundles, at Rs. 5 a piece. A whopping 10 kg of palak is sold out in just 10 minutes!

Not just vegetables, the Bazaar also sells de-seeded tamarind and neatly-packed lime and curd rice. Govindarajan says that in a way, it is also a social service to feed people at nominal rates. A daily-wager, I. Shanmugham, has just had a filling meal of lime rice for Rs. 15. “Earlier, I would depend on food packets sold by mobile eateries. They have raised the cost to Rs. 25 a packet. I can’t afford that on my daily salary. This is a godsend,” he says.

The bazaar also sells bajji, vada and bonda at Rs. five each and curd rice at Rs. 15. There’s also masala tea for Rs. 5 and coffee for Rs. 8. The auto drivers and loaders nearby are already fans of the tea. “Romba nalla irukku,” says K. Velusamy, a loader.

Nearby, some men are calling up their wives to check if the tamarind (Rs. 40 for 500 gm) is worth buying at that price. The next minute, they line up to purchase it.

Homemakers Venkalakshmi S. and Dhanalakshmi D. who live in the prison quarters come in on Tuesday morning to buy vegetables. But, everything is sold out, just half hour after the vegetables are put up on sale, and one-a-half-hours after they are harvested. It is this freshness factor that is drawing in people to the Prison Bazaar.

(Names of the prisoners have been changed)

The Bazaar functions out of the Jail Grounds on Nanjappa Road from 6 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. It will be manned by inmates of the Open Air Jail and non-uniformed police officials. The product range will soon include bed spreads and mosquito nets made by the prison inmates.

The bazaar has been put up in association with several NGOs. Plans are afoot to open it in other places too.

The profits from the venture would be shared among inmates of the open jail, jail staff and the State Government (20 per cent each). The remaining 40 per cent would go to the Tamil Nadu Prison Department Manufacturing of Goods Fund.