COVID-19 has inspired hundreds of ordinary citizens across the country to come forward and respond to this crisis. All of them, irrespective of caste, class, gender and religion have come forward to contribute in their own ways, to overcome the unprecedented situation that the country is experiencing.
Farmers in Chambal – the region known for wrong reasons such as lawlessness and dacoity in the past – of Madhya Pradesh are now showing the state how the region and its farmers can be a lighthouse in these difficult times.
While farmers had produce that they could not sell because of the lockdown, consumers could not buy vegetables. A farmer producer company (FPC) took it upon itself to connect its member farmers as well as consumers to resolve the issues of both.
Similar to other parts of the country, COVID-19 stopped the daily life of residents of the city of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Local vegetable market and other grocery shops were closed in the city. People were confined to their home; they started facing shortage of essential supplies for their daily needs.
While the city residents had to remain indoors, just about 40 km from the city, another group of citizens, namely farmers, began to realize a tricky situation they had to face.
Sale of fresh vegetables became almost impossible due to unavailability of transport and restrictions imposed by police in movement from villages to towns. Some farmers were forced to dump their vegetables as a result of the lockdown.
Connecting consumers and farmers
Two farmer members and directors of Chambal Agro Farmers Producer Company Limited (CAFPCL), Narendra Tomar and Manoj Parmar living in Gwalior had a different idea. They could not allow their own farmers to face this desperate situation. They felt that something had to be done.
Tomar and Parmar contacted Yogesh Dwivedi, CEO of Madhyabharat Consortium of FPCs, which is the federation of all farmer producer companies in Madhya Pradesh. They sought advice for the proposed intervention of connecting consumers and farmers.
In their telephone conversation, it was decided to begin procurement of vegetables and also arrange for distribution of the same. It was a good opportunity to serve both residents in the city as well as the farmers in nearby villages.
Chambal Agro Farmers Producer Company Limited (CAFPCL) is a newly established producer company, formed in September 2019. The initiative could also help the new organization to establish its credibility in these challenging times.
Narendra, one of the directors of CAFPCL, formed a WhatsApp group of customers in Gwalior and neighboring localities. He began listing the requirement of people.
The next step was to contact the local police station and to arrange for curfew passes for himself and two of his colleagues. They hired a Tata Magic (a mini transport) vehicle on a daily basis for collection and distribution of the vegetables.
Simultaneously, they began contacting farmers, noting the availability of vegetables. The plan that was emerging was explained to them. The farmers gave their consent unconditionally as they had problem in transport and sale of vegetables due to restriction on movement.
Persisting through apprehensions
When the Chambal Agro FPC team discussed this plan with family members, they were not supportive, obviously due to fear of possibility of contracting coronavirus. The team members addressed their concerns by strictly adhering to protective measures such as wearing masks and gloves, maintaining distance, etc.
Initially some of the consumers dismissed this idea as they thought that this task of delivering vegetables cannot be done by a small team of two or three persons of Chambal Agro FPC. The team members persisted in spite of the lukewarm response.
Initially, the number of customers reached daily was 75, which gradually increased to 300. Cumulatively the FPC has reached 4,800 families so far. The FPC has been procuring about 3.5 tons of vegetables every day from about 20 farmers.
Farmers from Akbarpur, Bhaupura and Saujana participate in the procurement. The nearest of the three villages is 14 km from Gwalior city and the farthest is 42 km away. Vegetables that are not available with farmers in these three villages are procured from the local market and sold to customers.
On an average, the sale volume per day was initially Rs 85,000 and on some days it peaked to Rs 1 lakh. The FPC initially had one vehicle to transport, then added two more as the volume of produce increased.
The farmers who participated in this novel experience found it very encouraging.Deepesh Lodhi of Akbarpur village and Durg Singh Kushwah of Bhaupura village said,“The FPC is a godsend, as our entire produce would have rotten. There were no buyers in the village.”
The district administration came to know about CAFPCL’s work. The CEO of the Zila Panchayat deputed few staff of the District Rural Livelihood Mission team to help this initiative. Now the district administration has made a mobile application (app) known as SG, for Serve Gwalior.
The residents of Gwalior order vegetables through this app. This has expanded the reach of Chambal Agro FPC. Earlier they were supplying 70-90 families, which has now increased up to 300 families per day.
The district administration has provided a government building for packing, storing and distribution of vegetables and other food items.
After seeing the success of this initiative, the district administration has replicated this experiment in other administrative blocks of Gwalior, in partnership with other organizations. The Chambal FPC team is now recognized as COVID-19 Warriors.
The new normal
As the country embraces the extension of lockdown till 3 May, as announced by the prime minister today, we do not want to speculate on what would be the scenario after the lockdown is lifted.
However, the Chambal Agro FPC experience certainly shows that things will not be the same again and there will be a NEW NORMAL, a situation better than the earlier one, where new opportunities to connect farmers and consumers in cities will emerge.
There would hopefully be many innovation alternatives that will challenge the often talked about non-transparent and exploitative supply chains that are against the interest of the producers of food in our country. In that alternative scenario, experiments like Chambal Agro FPC hold promise for a new normal that we all look forward to.
Yogesh Dwivedi is CEO of Madhyabharat Consortium of Farmer Producer Companies, Bhopal.
Ajit Kanitkar is a senior advisor at Vikasanvesh Foundation, Pune. Prior to this, he worked at Ford Foundation and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, both in New Delhi. He has also taught at Institute of Rural Management, Anand.