KERALA

Exporters put off by labour militancy, steep rates at Anayara market

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Dec. 4. Even as the decks are being cleared for the start of the commercial operations at the wholesale agricultural market at Anayara here, the threat of labour militancy and the frequent revision of auction rates for stalls pose uncertainties for traders and exporters.

Reversing its earlier decision to slash the bidding rates, the managing committee on Thursday proposed an increase in the security deposit and rent for the stalls in the complex. The proposal was made at a meeting convened by the District Collector K.R. Muraleedharan.

Set up with financial assistance from the European Economic Community, the market complex close to the National Highway bypass has remained locked up ever since its inauguration in 2000 following unenthusiastic response from traders and a dispute with headload unions.

In August this year, in a bid to attract traders, the managing committee headed by the District Collector offered to negotiate the rent and security deposit for the shops inside the market. Accordingly, the deposit for big stalls was slashed by half to Rs.50,000 and the rent was pegged at Rs.1,500, down from Rs.2,500. For small shops, the deposit rate was fixed at Rs.25,000 and the rent brought down to Rs.1,000. Following the reduction, about 200 traders applied for setting up stalls.

At Thursday's meeting, the managing committee has proposed another increase, which takes the deposit for big shops to Rs.70,000 and the rent to Rs.3,000 while the rates for small shops were hiked to Rs.35,000 and Rs.1,500. According to K. Mohankumar, MLA, who participated in the meeting, the rates were hiked in view of the large number of bids submitted for the 18 shops. The hike will not extend to the stalls, which have already been auctioned away.

Set up to promote exports and provide a boost to the economy of the state, the market has been designed to provide facilities for farmers to market their products without the interference of middlemen. The complex, located in a 10-hectare plot can handle up to 1,000 tonnes of perishable goods such as banana, vegetables and potatoes and 1,500 tonnes of foodgrains and pulses besides spices and copra.

The imminent completion of the railway overbridge at Chackai, which will open up the Kovalam- Kazhakuttom Bypass to traffic from the Tamil Nadu side, has provided an incentive to the traders. The proximity of the international airport was expected to attract exporters but they have shied away from investing in the facility despite the Government's offer to introduce Customs examination at the market itself.

Exporters are put off by the threat of labour militancy, which continues to haunt the market. They are primarily concerned about the Government's failure to invoke the provisions of the Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) Act.

As many as 152 headload workers were issued cards by the Assistant Labour Officer in 1995. While the traders aver that the cards were issued only for the period of construction, headload unions contend that it extends to loading and unloading of produce.

Following the Government move to invoke the new Act, the unions moved the High Court. The Court has directed the Joint Labour Commissioner, Kollam, to report back after deciding on the issue.

According to Dil Koshy, secretary of the Agricultural Products and Processed Foods Exporters Association (APPEXA), 22 exporters operating from the city had relocated their base to Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli over the years to avoid labour problems. "Having invested heavily in setting up godowns and transport facilities in Tamil Nadu, we see no reason to run the risk of facing the same problem, which forced us to relocate. If the Government is sincere in its efforts to attract exporters to the market, it should ensure that labour militancy is rooted out."

Of the 50 tonnes of vegetables and fruits exported daily from the Thiruvananthapuram international airport, the major chunk is destined for West Asia while about two to three per cent is sent to European countries. Some of the other factors that prompted the exporters to shift their operations to Tamil Nadu is the absence of post-harvest handling facilities in Kerala and the logistical problems of procurement from scattered land holdings.

While the market is primarily intended for wholesalers, the managing committee is considering a proposal to set up a retail outlet outside the complex where consumers can purchase vegetables and fruits at reduced rates. Useable rejects from export consignments will also be sold through these outlets.

A large number of the wholesale traders in the Chala and Manacaud markets are expected to shift their business to Anayara and thus help ease the traffic congestion in the city.

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