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After almost a decade, Uzhavar Santhai, Tamil Nadu government’s farmers’ market scheme, gets its due mention in the farm budget presented by Agriculture Minister M R K Panneerselvam recently. The minister has set aside Rs 15 crore to upgrade infrastructure facilities and another Rs 10 crore to start new Uzhavar Santhai markets in Dharmapuri, Vellore, Nagapattinam and Tirupattur districts. The markets would also function during evening hours. As of now, Uzhavar Santhai function till afternoon.
The novel scheme, taking cue from the farmers’ markets in the US and Europe, was launched by then DMK government headed by M Karunanidhi in 1999. As of now there are 180 Uzhavar Sandhais functioning across Tamil Nadu. Officials from the department say that they could not take out any major structural works in Uzhavar Sandhais for last ten years. The funding was limited and were sanctioned by agricultural marketing committees based on need and fund availability. inmathi.com had revisited Uzhavar Santhais that were suggested as alternatives to the farm bills that seek to provide direct market access to farmers.
Here are some measures that would rejuvenate the Uzhavar Santhai project.
Spread: The novel project where farmers can market their produce has not been established in all towns and cities. In our previous article on Uzhavar Santhais, we have mentioned there are 22 city corporations, 146 municipal corporations and 561 town panchayats and these local bodies have potential to start an Uzhavar Santhai each.
Land: An Uzhavar Sandhai official, not willing to be named, said they struggled to get drinking water connection to the market. The markets function on lands allotted by local bodies without any fee. Since, the markets don’t pay any tax, the local bodies see them more as liabilities. A ruling party member has to intervene to get the connection. Uzhavar Santhais need dedicated lands exclusively meant for them. Functioning at lands allotted by local bodies comes with its own complications.
Accessibility: During the budget speech, M R K Panneerselvam announced shifting six Uzhavar Santhai markets functioning at Kothagiri, Veppanthattai, Panruti, Chidambaram, Keelpennathur and Thiruvarur to new premises for easy access. Officials say the markets functioning inside cities and towns have better footfall while the ones situated at the suburbs lack accessibility. Suburban Uzhavar Santhais should be either moved to accessible places or connected with town buses.
Revenue sources: Started with a service objective, Uzhavar Santhais don’t charge any rent from farmers. The electronic scales farmers use are calibrated every year. Recently, the markets started charging Rs 1,500 as rent from Farmers Producer Organizations, Rs 1,000 from Women Self Help Groups for setting up shops. Most of the markets don’t even make Rs 5,000 each but the liabilities include electricity charges, maintenance, wage for workers. The budget announced allotting shops to FPOs to sell value added products. Uzhavar Santhais need more revenue sources to sustain themselves.
Diversification: Though the objective is to sell everything the farmers produce in their farms, Uzhavar Santhais as of now are reduced to vegetable markets. This year’s budget envisages selling value added products, seeds, bio-fertilizers and fruit seedlings in 50 of Uzhavar Santhais. The minister also announced turning the markets into centres of dissemination of agriculture technologies to the farming community and awareness programmes for farmers. All Uzhavar Santhais should be extended with these facilities.
Sustainability: Even with scanty funding, the project has somehow survived because of the intrinsic strength in the idea. More revenue sources like rents, fees for conducting programmes should be created. Canteens could be run during the evening hours. Organic farmer Pamayan recalls seeing a model in Sri Lanka some years ago. IAS officer U Sagayam started a similar venture in Madurai earlier. The markets should be able to generate its own revenue which will ease the burden on the state exchequer. An exclusive department to man the markets could be considered.
Uzhavar Santhais need not be mere markets. In a city or town that lacks public places, they could act as hang out spots after market hours. Activities like food fair and games could be conducted so that the community starts participating.
Purpose: Though the name suggests Uzhavar Santhai, not all those who come to sell produce are farmers. Many are proxies of farmers. In the current setup, it is not easy for the farmers to keep supplying only vegetables to the markets, say farmers. Many vegetables sold in the markets are not actually cultivated in the region. Take the example of cauliflower or carrots. They are hill crops ferried from hills stations. So, the vegetables are procured from central vegetable markets at bulk and sold at Uzhavar Santhais. Such practices defeat the purpose of farmer markets, says Pamayan.
More than market: Uzhavar Santhais need not be mere markets. In a city or town that lacks public places, they could act as hang out spots after market hours. Activities like food fair and games could be conducted so that the community starts participating. Farmer – Consumer meetings could be conducted regularly so that the farmers are aware of consumer demands and consumers could support the farming community.
Organic Farming: With the focus shifting to organic farming, Uzhavar Santhais could market these premier products. But such a move comes with its own bottlenecks. Farmer community leader Arulpragasam from Madurai says that organic certification is a challenge because it requires expertise and staff to monitor, which the Santhais don’t have. Without proper certification, it won’t be easy to sell organic farm products at Uzhavar Santhais. Besides, the customer base for these premium products is small and it is doubtful if they would come to the markets.
What could work then: A mobile Uzhavar Santhai could be a better option for organic produce, says Pamayan. This would help customers who are spread all over the city and maybe not all live close to the market.
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