(As told to NDTV's Saurabh Gupta)
I work with the Paani Foundation started by Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao and we are working in 76 tehsils in 24 districts across Maharashtra for the last four years. Our projects include water conservation and more efficient ground water usage, increasing the ground water table and creating a watershed for the villages we work in. We have trained over 6,000 villages and more than 35,000 people have benefitted from our work through training; lakhs of villagers are connected with Paani Foundation to solve their water issues.
The lockdown has hit the rural economy hard. Farmers have produce but they don't know how to get it to the markets. And some of it may perish if we don't step in now. A lot of villages have resolved their water issues and due to a good monsoon, the water table has increased and we have a good vegetable crop. But suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic has come as a challenge. Farmers did not know what to do with the vegetables. The team at Paani Foundation was worried about what farmers would do in this situation. In the Paani Foundation coordination meetings, we discussed these issues and tried to understand what problems farmers were facing. So we came up with the idea of creating a new model for distribution and sale of vegetables and fruits.
One evening, after the lockdown was announced, I received a call from a local corporator, Advocate Dattatray Bankar, asking me if we can set up a place for farmers in touch with Paani Foundation to sell their produce while maintaining social distancing norms. I suggested that if we collect surplus produce from farmers and distribute it in vehicles in each and every ward, we can reduce crowds at vegetable markets and ensure almost door-to-door delivery. The farmers benefit and the consumer also gets fresh farm produce at his doorstep. He liked the idea and immediately reached out to the Addditional Chief Officer of the Satara Municipal Corporation Sanchit Dhumal who asked me for the names of farmers, driver details and the vehicles involved in executing these deliveries. He said permission would be granted for these vehicles and they could deliver the surplus produce to people's homes directly. The police were also informed they must remove any bottlenecks in this new supply chain. With permission letters, farmers would also be allowed to buy diesel from petrol pumps to execute this delivery model. We started with four vehicles and now there are 100 vehicles picking up produce from farmers, travelling to the city and then going from locality to locality to deliver vegetables. Each vehicle has a designated ward to sell vegetables in. That removes duplication and unnecessary movement in a lockdown.
The Municipal Corporation also publicised a list of farmers with their mobile numbers and which ward they would be delivering vegetables to. Now farmers directly take orders from consumers and then the vegetables are delivered at their ward or even at their doorstep. The project has been extended to four districts now - Satara, Akola, Solapur and Sangli. We were a little worried about the supply chain model and whether it would work or not. We are now also making a list of available vegetables in villages near Mumbai and Pune to see if we can extend this to Mumbai as well. Ten places where there are surplus vegetables are close to Mumbai and Pune and data collection has been done by our teams already. We are asking villages to tell us what they have and once we have this final list, we will provide it to the government to see if this service can be started in Mumbai and Pune as well. It's a big opportunity to connect farmers directly to the cities and the lockdown has presented us with an opportunity to test this new supply chain model.
The model already has success stories. One village is relieved. Nhadi Budruk in Satara has managed to sell all 40 tonnes of surplus water melon it had produced at a rate of Rs 10 - Rs 12 per kg. With the APMC markets shut, the produce would have perished if this model had not come in to fill the gap. The profit is of Rs 6 - Rs 7 kilo for the farmer as the middleman's cut is removed. The middlemen usually buy this produce at Rs 3 - Rs 5 per kg from the farmer and sell at a rate of Rs 15 - Rs 20 per kg. But this model works to the advantage of both the farmer and the consumer in terms of economics.
This model needs to be scaled up and farmers' organisations can take up the mantle of direct farm-to-home transfer. Farmers make more money and consumers get fresh produce which is an advantage for both. Transportation costs are also reduced as farmers know where to supply and they may not need to travel long distances if the demand has not picked up in one place. But the farmer cannot do this alone. It has to be a cooperative moment. India can now look at a new cooperative model that is beneficial to both farmer and consumer. Local-level organizations can connect them to shops or consumers directly in the city. This is a revolution waiting to happen and while a lockdown is unfortunate, it may have just provided us with a chance to try new things that may well be the future of transferring perishable goods from the village to the city - a new model that puts the interest of the farmer and the consumer first.
(Dr. Avinash Pol is dental surgeon based in Satara who has taken up social work to improve lives of rural communities. He is the Chief Advisor at Paani Foundation. Their mission is to create a drought-free and prosperous Maharashtra, by fostering social unity and providing scale to proven solutions and technologies.)
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