Just process it: India must pulp, can, freeze-dry its way out of seasonal inflation
Tomatoes occupy more acreage on news media than on the field — that might be an exaggeration, but not by much. Having gone up 329 per cent over a month in price, tomatoes have forced the government to abandon its facile market fundamentalism and intervene in the vegetable market: it has directed the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED) and the awkwardly named National Cooperative Consumers’ Federation of India (NCCF) to procure tomatoes from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra and distribute them in areas where the red fruit, commonly used as a vegetable, sells at a price higher than the all-India average.
Orthopaedics love such reactions: those sudden jerks of the patella generate good business for them. But such spasms are unlikely to yield a lasting solution to the seasonal shortage of vegetables and accompanying spikes in their price. With climate change a grim reality and seasonal rain increasingly a fond fragment of nostalgia, we have to learn to make better use of the crops we do manage to harvest, to rid them of their chief weakness of swift perishability. And that calls for extensive food processing.
The way out
Pureed tomatoes are relatively widely available already. This availability has to be extended further. However, not everyone likes their tomatoes as processed mush. They want chunky slices of the vegetable — the crunchier, the better. Simple treatment, in the form of spraying with the extract of neem leaves and coating with wax, can prolong their shelf life in cold storages. Canning is a common solution. Indians have not taken to canning tomatoes or cooking with canned tomatoes on any large scale. This must change.
Onions can be converted into paste, converted into flakes, and desiccated. Perhaps, onions can be freeze-dried; food technology experts would know. The same goes for fruit of all kinds. Thailand does all kinds of things with its fruit to ensure availability round the year, including as snacks, gift pouches for tourists to present to the untravelled masses back home.
The “powerless” states
Why does India not have the varied and extensive food processing its rich variety of fruits and vegetables deserves? The answer lies in three absences: of reliable power during the daytime in rural areas, where fruits and vegetables grow; of adequate availability of all-weather rural roads, on which to transport fresh produce or processed fruit and vegetables to consumption centres; and of organisational forms that would aggregate the efforts of small producers to give them scale, financial clout and bargaining power with the relatively large buyers of their produce in the towns.
There has been considerable progress in extending the electricity distribution network to most rural areas. And these lines do supply enough power for lighting. But as the remarkable number of deaths reported from parts of Uttar Pradesh during a recent heat wave shows, there is not enough power to cool shelters, leave alone homes, with air-conditioning. That the Yogi government has been able to supply power for up to 16 hours in major parts of Uttar Pradesh marks major improvement over the state of affairs in the past. Yet, that still leaves 8 crucial hours of nil or scant supply — during the day, when factories and food-processing plants operate.
Ever since the Vajpayee government launched the Gram Sadak Yojana, building village roads has been a national priority. The UPA government extended and expanded the scheme, adding to the rural road network. In parallel, there has been much investment in building highways. So, if fresh produce can make it out of villages in reasonably good shape, it can reach distant markets in towns reasonably fast.
That is the theory. The reality is that it still takes a government directive for tomatoes from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra to reach consumption centres where prices are sky-high — the logistics, as they stand, do not present themselves as viable for the private sector to solve the seasonal vegetable shortage on its own. And road connectivity lags in the east, among many other enablers of social and economic progress.
The strength of cooperatives
Amul and the different state federations of dairy cooperatives are standing testimony to the power of aggregation and organisation of small producers. Cooperatives form a big role in the farm sector in most advanced countries, and are no more socialistic or public sector-ish than Apple or Tata Consultancy Services. The share of cooperatives in farm produce is of the order of 40% in the European Union. Canada, the US, and New Zealand — all have vigorous cooperatives in the farm sector.
In India, cooperatives have been politicised, with government funding being used as a lever to bring them under the thumb of politicians. If that can be avoided, cooperatives can work just fine. Or the farmer producer organisations, promoted vigorously by the government since 2011, can provide the organisational structure, access to finance, and bargaining power vis-à-vis corporate buyers of farm produce.
If dairy farmers can get organised and form cooperatives that find commercial success, why can’t small farmers also get organised and find commercial success in their sector? No law of nature stands in the way. A paucity of political will is the biggest hurdle.
Sardar Patel was involved in organising cooperatives in Gujarat. AK Gopalan, a Communist and leader of the largest Opposition bloc in Parliament in the initial years of Congress dominance, was an organiser of cooperatives. There is every reason for political parties to reimagine politics as a constructive activity that helps improve people’s lives, and start organising cooperatives, not with the aim of seeking to control the lives and finances of those who join the cooperatives but to improve their lot.
If infrastructure and organisation can be supplied, the supplies of vegetables round the year can also be ensured, at prices that do not make you see the colour of tomatoes.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.)
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