Behind the fragrance of the jasmine flowers that women wear in their hair is not just sweat and toil of farmers, but that of an entire community of small traders and flower vendors.
Scores of women from north and central Chennai make a beeline for the retail flower market in Bunder Street in Parry's Corner all day. They invest anywhere between Rs. 20 and Rs. 200 on jasmine buds. Irrespective of whether a saer (300 gm) costs Rs. 25 or Rs. 35, they buy it. Wholesale traders do not object when the women scoop the flowers and roll it in their palm under the sunlight before making a purchase.
S. Balakrishnan, who has been in the business for 43 years, says though poor, the vendors will not invest in inferior quality flowers. “The bad flowers are smaller in size and may have worms, so the women won't buy it even if it is sold cheaper,” he says. When the flower blooms, the fragrance spreads. By night, when the street is filled with the sweet smell of jasmine and there are fewer buyers, shopkeepers slash prices.
“We don't invest a lot of money like the merchants in Koyambedu. The jasmine market opens around 11 a.m. and we continue to sell until 9 p.m.,” says P. Dhanraj, president, Chennai Retail flower Merchants' Welfare Association. The flowers are sourced from Koyambedu, Tiruvallur, Chengalpet and Tambaram.
Perfumery agent V.N. Sekar competes with the vendors and retailers in Koyambedu to buy jasmine for his perfumery in Vellore. “I generally book sacks of jasmine by bus to Vellore and from there it is transported by van for 40 km to reach the factory,” he says. When he transports two tonnes of jasmine, it is a good day. “The challenge is to ensure that flowers remain fresh till they reach the perfumery,” Mr. Sekar says.
While retailers are unable to put a finger on the amount of jasmine they sell at Koyambedu, between April and June, around 10-12 tonnes of jasmine arrive each day. On any given day, a saer of jasmine costs at least five rupees less in Koyambedu, but most of it is sold to bulk buyers. Here too, as the evening advances, the merchants undersell the flower. Business closes around 4.30 p.m., unlike in Bunder Street.
H. Ondiyan, secretary of Koyambedu Flower Wholesale Merchant's Association complains that the retail market is eating into their business. “Despite several court orders, they continue to do business and we are suffering,” he says. But Mr. Dhanraj says, “Look at the women. Do you think they can afford to spend on bus tickets or invest huge sums in a wholesale market? We cater to a small segment and we also help to sell their product,” he argues. “We ensure the survival of these poor women. The fruit and vegetable wholesale markets nearby are thriving. So why target the retail flower market?”