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Hill vegetables like carrot and broccoli were once considered a little exotic for common folk in Chennai. The pandemic has triggered a change in that.

The wholesale vegetable market at Chennai is located at Koyambedu. Covering some 300 acres, it is among the biggest in Asia.

The Koyambedu site has nearly 1,000 wholesale outlets, some 2,000 retail shops – totally 3,100. Several lakhs of people use the market. Produce from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra are sold at the market. Wholesalers buy here and sell to retailers in Chennai, Chengalpet, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Cuddalore and Ranipet districts.

The Chennai Corporation that maintains the market puts out the list of wholesale prices of vegetables and fruits. Officials say that the prices serve as benchmark and produce may not be exactly sold at that price. Retailers add their margin along with the costs of transportation, labour, shop rent and so on. Along with the wholesale market at T Nagar, this is how Chennai’s vegetable and fruits produce needs were fulfilled.

The chain of activities in which the Koyambedu market played the hub is slowly coming loose. Those who grow vegetables themselves started bringing their produce to town, taking them to specific spots in the city to sell direct.

The pandemic has triggered a change in this. The chain of activities in which the Koyambedu market played the hub is slowly coming loose. Those who grow vegetables themselves started bringing their produce to town, taking them to specific spots in the city to sell direct. Even as the pandemic is ending and with the lockdown becoming history, this trend has only gained strength.

The vegetables growing in the adjoining districts are coming directly for sale in Chennai. Seasonal vegetables like water melon, jackfruit, gooseberries are being carted around in vans and sold.

Carts with sound amplification systems announce the prices and take the produce to households for sale. Not too long ago, vendors would walk the streets, yelling at the top of their voice their produce and inviting people to come out and buy them. A tweaked version is happening now.

This practice has spread all over Chennai. The carts have recent weighing scales. Instead of vegetables available loose, they are sometimes packed as 1 kg or half kg and sold. Unfortunately, banned plastic is being used to pack the vegetables. The vans morph into temporary street corner shops too at crowded areas that provide a ready customer base.

Hill vegetables such as broccoli, beans, carrot and mushrooms are available at rates below Rs 100 in Chennai. These were not typical pre-pandemic prices. Middle class households rarely had these vegetables in their menus. But today, they are available at reduced rates at street corners. Prices of Rs 15 are not too uncommon especially in the evenings when stocks need to be cleared. These are typically wholesale prices at Koyambedu.

Hill vegetables such as broccoli, beans, carrot and mushrooms are available at rates below Rs 100 in Chennai. (Photo Credit: Koyambedu- Balu Velachery-Flickr)

The shops are set up by morning and sales happen through the day. Afternoon, the prices start varying. Those who would go to big retailers for these vegetables now buy at these temporary shops. Beans, carrot, broccoli and mushroom are now appearing on the lunch and dinner plates of even poorer people in Chennai, as a result.

A store manager at Pazhamudir Nilayam said though this appeared to be a  temporary trend, it has had a big impact on big retailers who need to pay for many other costs besides their profit.

Mobile cart owners say farmers come to them directly. But that’s not true, the manager says, adding some operators are buying at rock bottom prices at Koyambedu and undercuting retail shops to sell at these makeshift stalls. He demanded this has to stop since it skews the market.

Nevertheless, the way vegetables are sold and bought has changed in Chennai. It remains to be seen if the trend will continue and the changes will be permanent.


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