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The Azadpur mandi never sleeps.

It is 5am at the Choudhary Heera Singh Fruit and Vegetable Market, the official name for the chaotic scene defining a pocket of North Delhi. Hundreds of workers unload produce that has just arrived by rail and road, from farms across the country.

See pictures:

1) A worker carries a sack to a truck. Scores of men toil day and night, manually loading and unloading produce.

2) A commission agent strikes a deal with a farmer for tomatoes.

3) Sacks of green chillies await buyers. In all, 50 types of fruits and 68 types of vegetables are traded in the market.

4) Labourers and farmers wait while an auction is in progress.

5) A man pushes a van laden with cartons.

6)Bull run—the animal is a common sight in the market.

7)Workers catch their 40 winks on top of trucks stacked with fruits and vegetables.

Even as the businesses of agriculture, transportation and retail have changed, the largest wholesale market in the country still operates much in the same manner as when it started—back in 1977. Produce is transported without what is called a cold chain, refrigerated trucks to frigid warehouses for storing produce. Old-fashioned auctions unfold, transparency hidden by hand gestures and handkerchiefs. Harried farmers haggle with commission agents and wholesalers. The age-old practices almost belie the billion-dollar trade operation they have created.

Still, signs abound that the economics of these 76 acres might be antiquated.

Workers say it’s not as crowded as it used to be. Various government initiatives attempt to replace old-style mandis as this with more direct ways to link farmer and consumer. And the booming and cut-throat retail sector slowly devises ways to eliminate such middlemen.

These realities, coupled with competition, threaten the mandi’s future and the livelihoods it supports. Like the thin and wiry Ganesh Thakur, who works at the market as a loader. Thakur left his home in Bihar in the late 1980s and has held odd jobs at the market for 18 years. “At 8pm, the kachchi sabzi (raw vegetables) start coming in. Trucks laden with potatoes, onions and garlic start coming into ‘A’ block by 2.30am," he says.

City of greens

To scores such as Thakur, the mandi is home, a city within a city. Divided into four blocks of concrete and metal-roofed structures, it houses 1,703 wholesalers and 2,357 commission agents. It is the midpoint in the farm-to-plate journey, as produce moves from farms to depots such as Azadpur, then a final stretch through street vendors, roadside stalls and, more recently, retail chains such as Reliance Fresh and Subhiksha.

It is an ecosystem that provides ancillary employment to thousands: from men selling cheap watches, immersed in containers of water to prove they are waterproof, to those selling tea and food to visitors and workers at the market.

Despite technological innovations, produce marketing has changed little. Still largely labour intensive, scores of men such as Thakur toil day and night, unloading sacks of produce with little more than bare hands. The produce is stacked in commission agents’ sheds, where the agents procure produce from farmers and then sell to retailers. Afterwards, the produce is loaded back to the buyers’ trucks to make the final leg of the journey.

The entire process could take several days, forcing some produce, such as the tomato, to be harvested when still raw, only to ripen in transit.

“It’s like going back to where we (the US) were in the 1950s and the 1960s, and that’s the challenge," said Duke Buruss, a market development specialist about the Azadpur mandi.

Buruss visited India last month as part of a team of experts on modern terminal markets. The two-day workshop was organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Institute of Agricultural Marketing.

Attempts by the Union government to get states to allow farmers to more directly sell produce have met limited success; only 18 states have amended their Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act to do so.

The amendments propose to reduce the stranglehold of markets on farmers and enable farmers to sell produce directly to companies rather than market them at markets such as the ones at Azadpur. At a conference on agricultural marketing last week, Union minister for agriculture Sharad Pawar said the government is preparing a final draft that will help states implement reforms.

In the absence of cold-chain services, a delay along the way means substantial losses. Analysts estimate up to 40% of produce goes bad by the time it makes its way to kitchens. “For greens, the wastage could go much higher. And an integrated cold-chain system doesn’t exist for agricultural produce," said an official with a terminal market developer, who did not wish to be identified, because the company was bidding for several terminal markets across the country.

With total trade worth Rs3,900 crore for the year ending March 2007, the mandi is the largest of 709 wholesale markets from where the majority of India’s agricultural produce is moved to the retail market. In 2005-06 alone, the market recorded 4.5 million tons of produce. Almost four-fifths of the produce is shipped by road and the rest by rail to the Azadpur railway station, located next door. The nearest major highway is National Highway 1, barely a stone’s throw away. Construction work on a road over a bridge chokes an already crowded Ring Road, the other major approach road to the mandi. On the Ring Road, auto-rickshaws and cars are outnumbered by trucks belching smoke into the early morning air.

Tackling bottlenecks

Once known as Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market, its significance is decreasing, say traders at the Azadpur market, as infrastructural bottlenecks force farmers to seek other options. “If you had come here a few years back, you wouldn’t have been able to step inside because of the crowds," says Ashok Sharma, whose family has been in vegetable trading for several generations.

Markets such as the one at Azadpur are seeing business level off, as infrastructural bottlenecks in an economy growing at more than 9% catalyse the development of alternate wholesale markets.

The government hopes to counter this by setting up more modern markets, with better facilities, space allocations for transportation and storage for farmers and traders. These terminal markets would also offer more choices to the farmer, allowing him to sell produce directly to exporters and retailers. Speaking at the workshop, Karnail Singh, additional secretary in the Union ministry of agriculture, said between 15 and 20 terminal market complexes were expected to be set up through public-private partnerships by 2008.

Already, change is palpable. A lot of business has shifted to other markets such as a sub-yard of the Azadpur mandi at Okhla and Keshopur in New Delhi. With other states setting up their own markets, New Delhi is losing its pre-eminence, according to a 2003 report published by the Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board. More than half of total arrivals were being diverted to the small towns in neighbouring states, according to a 1990-91 study. In the last five years, that scenario has changed. “Buyers in small towns around New Delhi prefer to procure produce directly from the producers, eliminating middlemen, transportation costs and delayed delivery," the report said. For some fruits such apples, less than half is routed through New Delhi today.

The future

Organized retailers have also begun shifting to contract farming, an arrangement when growers exclusively produce for them.

Regardless, the authorities are looking to make good on a long-standing expansion plan for the Azadpur mandi. It entails an investment of Rs500 crore that would eventually result in the creation of a modern market and shift the fruit business to another centre. The Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board (DAMB) plans to locate the new facility in the 73 acres of agricultural land it owns on the outskirts of New Delhi. In addition, DAMB, which controls the nine markets in New Delhi, is planning to acquire 10 acres of land next to the existing market from the capital’s land-owning agency, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). The multi-storey building, which will come up on this land, will house exporters’ offices, grading centres, ripening chambers, parking area and even a food court, said government officials.

Market watchers say sourcing directly from farmers is still a tiny part of the overall agricultural produce sold in the country; companies still end up sourcing a sizeable portion from markets such as the one at Azadpur. Reliance Industries Ltd’s retail arm, which runs nearly 300 grocery stores nationwide, currently procures almost one-fifth of its estimated 600 tonnes of fresh per day from markets, said a senior Reliance Retail official who requested anonymity, as he was unauthorized to speak to the media. In fact, Reliance and retailer Subhiksha have even asked for offices and storage spaces at Azadpur, according to Brahm Yadav, chairman of the DAMB. Despite the talk of relocation and competition, business goes on as usual at the Azadpur mandi.

In stall D-1319 of a metal- roofed shed, an auction takes place at 7am. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, commission agent Sanjay Kumar auctions tomatoes, just arrived after a three-day journey from Nasik, Maharashtra, picked while still green. All around, 23kg crates of tomatoes are stacked four crates high. Kumar flits from stack to stack, opening a crate to look at the quality of the product, refusing a crate here, striking deals for others.

Then comes the other end of the supply chain: A trader who will buy the produce from him and sell to end users. The men shake hands, their palms covered by a blue handkerchief, as they indicate to each other—through their fingers—the price Kumar will get for the tomatoes he has just bought from the cultivators.

The deal is struck, a wad of notes of Rs500 denomination exchange hands and the tomatoes continue their journey to dinner tables.

Rasul Bailay also contributed to this story.

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