The Forward Bloc, a constituent of the Left Front government in West Bengal, has stalled the launch of Reliance Fresh stores, the agri-retail venture ofReliance Industries Ltd, in the state.
The state’s agri-marketing department, which is run by Forward Bloc members, has been withholding licenses the retail chain needs to sell farm products in the state.
Though West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has personally stepped in to mediate between the department and Reliance, after the latter served a legal notice to the state’s agriculture marketing board, the Forward Bloc is not willing to back off. The party’s leaders have been very vocal on their reservations about allowing big corporate players to sell farm products.
Now, with no legal ground for denying the licences, the cornered department has sought more details about the agri-retail operations that Reliance is planning in the state, before it issues the licences applied for.
“We applied for the licences (for different locations) in November,” said Kalyan Sarangi, the chief operating officer of Reliance Fresh in West Bengal. “The department has issued a licence for one location in Hoogly district but is holding back the others.”
He declined to enumerate how many licences his company has applied for, or provide reasons for the delay.
“Let them (Reliance) give us all the details of their operations and meet all the regulations we have in place for marketing agricultural produce,” said Naren Chatterjee, chairman of the agriculture marketing board, who is also a member of the Forward Bloc.
“We also have to ensure they are not in direct competition with the state-regulated mandis (vegetable and fruit markets),” he added.
He claimed that even if the licences are given, Reliance will be asked to set up its stores 10-50 km away from these mandis. Reliance will also have to comply with the regulated pricing regime for farm products in place in the state, something it has not had to face in the other five states where it has opened shop.
With the Forward Bloc openly declaring its objection to the entry of major players in agri-retail, the agri-marketing department issued a notification bringing Kolkata and neighbouring Howrah under the licensing regime that guides sale of farm foods in rest of West Bengal.
This move will also impact the other big players who have been looking to roll out their operations in Kolkata. Spencers, the retail chain of locally-based RPG Enterprises, which opened its first store in the city earlier this month, has already rushed to apply for a licence, in the light of the belated change in the rule book.
“In the changing agri-marketing scenario, the Forward Bloc-run department fears losing its stranglehold on the regulated farm products’ markets in the State,” said a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the larger constituent of the Left Front government, who didn’t want to be named.
Reliance’s problems were first reported by the Telegraph.
Reliance, which had originally looked at rolling out its Fresh stores in Kolkata in December, has already acquired properties in and around Kolkata. It is hoping the assurance, given by the West Bengal government, that the issue will be resolved in a week’s time, will hold good.