Friday, February 17, 2012

Tomatoes and Refrigerator – The story of perishable food items in India

Fresh vegetables being sold on a street - Guntur, India

Some days back I was walking through a small street road in Bangalore, suddenly one red coloured ball shot past my shoulders. I turned my eyes in its direction. It hit the road and broke in to pieces. I turned towards the direction it was coming from; it was our usual vegetable man. He was smiling towards me, a good guy who normally try to offer me the freshest tomatoes or beans available.

After buying some vegetables I walked towards the room. On the way I went to another bakery to have a Musambi Juice – one of my favorite one. Here in Bangalore it is available in a price range of 10-16 INR depends on the place and store. The guy stands next to me was buying some eggs. After having the juice I walked straight to the room, thinking about the broken tomatoes.

What was the difference in both cases? The poor vegetable man didn’t have a refrigerator to store his vegetables so he is forced to sell it fast or suffer the loss. In the second case the shop owner had a refrigerator where Coca-Cola was written all over it. This difference is not as simple as we imagine, according to minister we are losing around 40% of perishable items we are producing (It is another matter that last week a senior central government official argued that the loss is around 20% only).

It looks like government suddenly heard the alarm bell somewhere and finally woke up. Recently Planning Commission Vice Chairman stated that efficient food distribution can save 7000Cr. He also added that, technology will ensure efficient management of supply chain and grievance redressed. It was in 2010, ‘National Spot Exchange’, in its study on Cold Chain Grid in India recommended for the need of robust cold chain infrastructure to reduce the post harvest losses. Finally government decoded to establish National Centre for Cold Chain (NCCD) as a registered society having membership of all stakeholders in PPP (Public Private Partnership) with a corpus fund of 25Cr. Recently State Food Ministers meet which resolved to modernize PDS, also decided to create modern storage facilities.

But are these the only solutions for the problem? If I can rephrase the question will this solution will solve the problem completely? There is no doubt that the creation of storage chains will help the perishable to item to reach the distant markets, last long in the same place and reduce the wastage. The cold storage chain constructed by the government (or through PPP) may help us to store more vegetables and grains for a longer period of time, in other words we can save ourselves from dumping the huge amount of rotten vegetables on the road sides.

No doubt that it will be very much useful in the case of grains. But we have to think about how far it will able to help the common man who sells the vegetables or other perishable items? The mass storage is suitable for export and sending the items over long distances. But at the end of the supply chain it will depend on what the vegetable man on the street have at his disposal. After all you can’t go to a hypermarket on every other day.

I think while we are discussing about problems of highly distributed and complex problems we should look for the simple solutions first. For example how it is implemented by market forces? Why we can drink a Maza every other day and not able to eat mango in the off-season? Why the cold Red Bull, Pepsi, Tropicana are always available but not the vegetables?

Well the credit goes to the small refrigerators placed in the different stores which bear the pictures of cricketers and the famous brand names like Thumps Up, Coca-Cola etc. Isn’t it an adoptable idea for our central planners? Along with setting up cold storage chains isn’t better for the NCCD to loan small amounts to the shop owners to have their own cold storage systems, at least on a pilot basis on any second tier cities? I don’t think the egg Lorries coming from Namakkal will go first for a cold storage in Bangalore city and then all the vegetable shop owners will buy the items from there. Please note that I am not saying it will not happen, but along with that we need the terminal storage facilities also so that the shop owner need not have to throw out his priced tomatoes!!!


Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

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