Bitter fruits of harvest
DURING the early days of my stay in the village I had wanted to buy all my food locally. The farmers in the village grew ragi, cow pea, pigeon pea, green gram, jowar, horse gram and sesame. A couple of farmers with pump sets grew rice, sugarcane and vegetables. Fresh watery milk was available cheap, the gram dhals were cheaper but of poor quality and the ragi, black in colour, smelled of mould and fungus. I came to the conclusion that all the food available in the village was of inferior quality and meant for consumption by the poor with low purchasing power. A cloudy sky or an occasional shower can make the task of small farmers without drying and storage facilities a nightmarish experience. Grains that are not sun dried thoroughly have high moisture content in them and are prone to accumulate mould and fungus. Cloudy weather affects the quality of hay that animals refuse to eat unless desperately hungry.
Growers of perishable horticultural crops face the biggest challenge.
The practice among farmers is to stack the just cut ragi until the cold weather gives way to sunshine. The reason for this being that the ragi harvest coincides with the harvest of pulses and the farmer is short of labour to thresh ragi. By the time ragi is threshed, usually after Makara Sankranthi in mid-January, it starts developing mould. The grain so produced suffers from microbial contamination which affects the health of the poor who consume such grains. Poor quality grains procured from farmers by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) is distributed to the poor through the Public Distribution System. Farmers without facilities to thresh and dry crops can be seen doing so on the roads causing inconvenience to passing vehicles and the vehicular pollution affecting the quality of grains.
The non-availability of basic drying and storage facilities at the village level continues to cause immense hardship to farmers. This in spite of research institutes set up to develop what is termed "post-harvest technologies". Electrical dryers are expensive and unaffordable to most small farmers. The only knowledge of low cost "post-harvest technology" imparted to the farmer is the use of poisonous chemicals though traditional methods of storing of grains are far safer. It is said that research at the Central Food Technnological Research Institute (CFTRI) located in Mysore has done a lot of work in developing post-harvest technologies for preservation of food. The actual beneficiaries of research by such institutions are entrepreneurs with capital to set up their own food conservation units. Such research does not empower farmers but makes them dependent on those with capital. A government which hopes to help farmers can set up community level drying and storage facilities through the village panchayats close to the place of production rather than set up mega-research institutes in the cities to develop post-harvest technologies. The lack of cold storage and marketing facilities close to areas of production affects growers of perishable horticultural crops the most. Tonnes of horticultural produce is wasted every year because of lack of basic transport and storage infra-structure. The Horticultural Producers Co-operative Marketing Society (HOPCOMS) is set up with the help of the government and has a number of outlets in big towns and cities all over Karnataka. The buying price from farmers is fixed in consultation with its head office in Bangalore but it is common knowledge that the price of fruits is "fixed" by officials in consultation with the merchants controlling the regulated markets whose main interest is in keeping the prices low.
Recently I contacted HOPCOMS to sell my sapotas. I was told the buying price this season was Rs.10 per kg for best quality fruits. I was asked to take only big size fruits. I wished I had owned a sapota manufacturing unit which could make a size eight or a size 10 fruit on demand. If I were to take the fruits to HOPCOMS by public transport from my farm which is only 16 km from the city I had two choices, to take one of the two buses from our village or hire a autorickshaw. There was no guarantee that the produce would be accepted especially if there were already too many sellers of Sapotas that day. HOPCOMS suggests the farmer make prior arrangements by either calling up or by going to the office personally to fix the day on which the produce can be taken for sale. Bus facilities to and from villages are cancelled at will. This year many buses are cancelled because of the losses suffered by the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and out of the two buses from the village only one is plying now. If using private transport, most autorickshaws demand double meter from the villages. There seemed no point in selling the produce to HOPCOMS at such low prices when the selling price of sapotas was between Rs. 20-25 per kg. It is surprising that the quality of produce sold at HOPCOMS outlets are far inferior in comparison to the private fruit shops when only the best is demanded from the farmers. One is forced to believe in rumours of corrupt officials selling quality produce to private shops for personal gain.
A hard day at the market...
The private fruit shops offer better prices for "big" fruits. Quite often they lure growers into plucking fruits with promise of higher prices but actually pay a lower price once the produce is taken to the shop. Growers are forced to sell at whatever price because it makes little sense to take back the perishable produce or look for another buyer incurring further expenditure. The transport vehicles of HOPCOMS are all under repair; plans to repair them and make them road worthy might take a long time.
Centuries ago Babur, in his Baburnama complained of the inferior quality of fruits of Hindustan. Not even the mango could cure him of the nostalgia for the fruits of Central Asia, home of his youth. Successive Moghuls took keen interest in improving the quality of fruits especially the mango. India today has perhaps the worst fruits in Asia barring the Mango. One could blindly buy any fruit in any village market in Thailand and be sure of its quality. It is said that the Thai kings levied taxes on fruit trees, and decades of selection has helped Thailand to retain only the best fruit trees. China's best quality fruits were at one time meant for export and only second rate fruits were available for domestic consumption.
Indian consumers compromise on quality provided the fruits and vegetables are cheap. Contractors and middlemen control the fruit trade in India. Orchard owners prefer to give their trees on contract to middlemen even if for a pittance to avoid the hassles of marketing.
Greedy contractors pluck fruits when prices are high, not when fruits mature for ripening. Chemical ripening agents are then used to artificially ripen the fruits. The fruits thus ripened not only lack taste and flavour but pose danger to health. Unless discerning consumers demand quality in terms of sweetness and flavour and not necessarily the size, consumers will have to be satisfied with what the contractors want them to eat. The rhetoric about the export potential for Indian fruits goes on. Talking of abundance through bio-technology or the new "ever green revolution" is easier. The Government finds it convenient to fund bio-technology institutes and tissue culture laboratories in the name of improving the quality of horticultural produce rather than tackle ground level problems of marketing and preservation of food. With such a state of affairs it seems Babur's comment on the inferior quality of fruits in this country will remain true for a long time to come.
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