What does it take to decongest Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market?

Agricultural markets or mandis are some of the oldest landmarks reflecting the evolution and dynamism of Indian cities. And so should be the case, given that they lie at the very heart of a city’s food supply chains. Azadpur mandi in Delhi truly epitomises this idea, as till very recently, it was the supply chain of the entire North Indian region (and continues to be for many commodities), as described by its traders to me during the fieldwork I conducted in Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market to understand the marketing dynamics of agricultural commodities.

Recently, the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) of Azadpur mandi decided that it is time to decongest. There has been talk of relocation for this purpose for some time now. A seventy-acre plot of land was first purchased by the APMC near Narela, located about 21 km north of Azadpur in 1997. The plot was transferred to the APMC after 21 years. The Azadpur mandi itself was established in 1977.

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The calls to decongest the mandi have only grown louder over the years considering the mandi is in a constant state of chaos, with people, trucks, cattle and food incessantly competing with each other for physical space. The decongestion exercise is finally taking shape in the middle of a pandemic since physical distancing is next to impossible in the mandi in its current state. Cases initially reported in the mandi created panic amongst its traders and labourers, with three COVID-19 deaths recorded till early May. The mandi drastically expedited its efforts towards ensuring public health and safety and has spent upwards of INR 30 lakhs on making sanitation equipment and health staff available at its premises. Traders have acknowledged the APMC’s efforts and noted that this might be the cleanest the mandi has ever been.

In its initial COVID-19 response, the APMC came up with several ideas to decongest the mandi such as allowing one truck per trader for a six-hour duration at a time, separate time slots for the sale of fruits and vegetables, odd-even operation of stalls and restricting entry to 1000 people every four hours. These initiatives had little effect on the ground, and strong opposition by the commission agent (or arhatiya) lobby was successful in getting the staggered time slots for fruits and vegetables struck down. The peak hours for mandi operations are early in the morning and shifting sales to the evening would have had a drastic impact on the already stressed food supply chains at the time, along with the incomes of those who work in the mandi. A few days later, Delhi’s Cabinet Minister and Chairman of Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board, Mr. Gopal Rai announced that the mandi would remain open 24x7.

Decongesting the mandi

Physical space is the most valuable commodity in the Azadpur mandi. Given the current allotment structure of sale platforms or phars, one could say that the commission agents(CAs) dealing in fruits have some advantage over those dealing in vegetables. While the vegetable CAs often sit under dilapidated and leaking sheds to sell their produce (if not in their office basements), the fruit CAs have demarcated areas under well-constructed tin sheds with cemented platforms. The incoming trucks carrying the agricultural produce are parked right along the CA’s phar which makes loading and unloading of the produce convenient. When asked why the discrepancy in infrastructure exists, arhatiyas respond with only one word — politics.

The APMC’s procedure for the allotment of platforms requires an assessment of the volume of arrivals (or aavak) and the amount of market fees paid by the CA during the preceding three years. Apples and potatoes have the maximum arrival quantities in the mandi with apples surpassing potatoes by a margin of over 2,00,000 tonnes in 2019–20. For over twenty-five years now, apple has recorded the maximum aavak by tonnage in the mandi with 6,48,829 tonnes arriving in 2019–20 alone. Given that on an average, trucks carry 12 tonnes of produce, 54,000 trucks of apple alone arrived in the mandi last year. By a similar calculation, potato, the not-so-close second, arrived in close to 36,000 trucks to the mandi.

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Now that the mandi has finally started its decongestion exercise, apple has been the first to be ousted. The arhatiyas of the Shimla Apple Merchants Association(SAMA) began working from the four temporary sheds set up in the seventy-acre plot in Narela on 10th August 2020. The APMC has released notices on its website, inviting arhatiyas of cucumber, onion and green peas to apply for temporary allocation of space for trade. This space could be the one that becomes available when the apple arhatiyas vacate their shed in the New Fruit Mandi (refer to Image 2).

Planning for decongestion

The mandi’s prime location has made it a burden on the city infrastructure, adding to its traffic, waste management and pollution vows. The Master Plan for Delhi 2021 and the Delhi Urban Arts Commission(DUAC) have recommended the relocation of the New Sabzi Mandi to the Narela complex. According to the 2017 budget speech of Delhi’s Finance Minister, Mr. Manish Sisodia, the mandi at Narela was to be up and running by 2019. However, only the construction of the complex’s boundary wall was sanctioned by February 2019. The DDA’s plan for the new mandi includes space for 800 shops, 1200 vehicles, farmers’ sheds, restaurants, banks and police posts. For now, all of these plans stand replaced as temporary sheds get set up on hire basis for the SAMA traders to maintain physical distancing while trading at the Narela complex. Speculators believe that this temporary move will soon be made permanent.

While the move faced initial resistance from apple arhatiyas who will now have to travel to and fro between their offices at Azadpur and phars at Narela, a consensus has been achieved. The collective realisation that the ample parking space, easy movement of produce and people and the proximity to the border may increase the pace of the trade and fetch better prices for the farmers’ produce has helped. The palledars are not as convinced. Many of them live in the sheds and the lack of safety at night and amenities like drinking water and public facilities is a concern for them. Small-scale retailers are worried about the additional distance and thus, the transportation cost they will have to incur to buy the produce for the local consumers. However, most of the apple entering Delhi gets exported to other parts of the country, and the proximity of the new complex to the Eastern and Western peripheral expressway may help strengthen the existing marketing infrastructure for the commodity.

A much awaited step

Decongesting the Azadpur mandi is an essential step in infrastructure improvement for those who earn a living there and for the residents of the adjoining area. It is not often that policymakers talk about bolstering agricultural market infrastructure when, in many parts of the country, the question of the availability of infrastructure remains unaddressed. However, until the recent introduction of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, regulated markets like Azadpur were the only legally permissible spaces for agricultural commodity trade. The effect of the ordinance is likely to be evident only decades from now. Till then, mandis remain the primary sites of price discovery for farmers’ produce. Azadpur, right now, is bursting at the seams. Its decongestion will pave the way for the free flow of market function, avoiding the imposition of an indirect cost on the producer’s price.

[Note: I am thankful to my friends and acquaintances from the Azadpur mandi for their support and co-operation in providing me the primary information. I am also thankful to my mentors, Dr. Mekhala Krishnamurthy and Dr. Shoumitro Chatterjee, who introduced me to mandis and allowed me to explore their dynamism and diversity.]

I write about ag and ag markets.

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