No this is not the title of the latest Hindi blockbluster; this blog is about my visit to the wholesale sabji mandi (APMC wholesale vegetable market) in Lucknow. This is a slightly different kind of a blog — a somewhat dry account of the visit. But if you have ever wondered how veggies actually get to our neighborhood shops, read on…
We reached the wholesale sabji mandi around 4:45am while it was still dark. Yet there was some activity going on already. A few men were sitting and waiting for trucks to show up, another was weighing a small pile of lemons by hand, while others were going about moving some bori (large jute bags) and such.
The market was organized into small “shops”. These “shops” belong to different adhti (govt. registered agri-commodities trader) and are arranged along in a rectangular array of paved streets. Most shops were concrete with bamboo extensions in the front, but a few were just bamboo/tarp structures.
The First Transaction: Sale by farmer (or village-level aggregator) to the mandi trader
Soon small “auto-lorry” vehicles started bringing produce. Most produce arrived in ‘boris’, large plastic bags (double layer), and ‘dhoti-bundles’, but once in a while a truck came laden with produce in plastic crates.
The bundles were roughly equal sized, so they must have been weighed earlier. The weighting must have been approximate because larger vegetables such as ‘lauki’ couldn’t have weighed exactly 20kg to a bag.
One collection of lauki had come from 3-4 farmers (who also came with the produce). They all unloaded at one adhti’s shop without any bargaining. It appeared that they had a standing arrangement since the whole process was going on wordlessly! Their produce was presorted (large versus small lauki), pre-weighed.
They had come from Bahraich to Lucknow because apparently the Lucknow rates for lauki were 4rs higher than in Bahraich. Transport cost was around 3rs/kg (renting a 6 ton truck cost them 1800 rs). So trucking to Lucknow gave them an extra revenue of Rs. 1/kg.
Right next to this lauki operation, was the open shop of a radish trader. An auto-lorry had unloaded a pile of radish loose onto the ground. The radishes were being carefully sorted and put in neat piles, under the watchful eyes of the trader. Three neat piles – big size, small size, odd shaped.
At another adhti’s shop, we saw lemons and ginger. Lemons were being sorted by size. Another load of lemons was being weighed by hand in probably a weighing scale with 4-5 kg capacity. We learnt from him that the lemons had arrived all the way from Chennai, travelling about 2000 kilometers. The price of lemons at the time was around 3-4 rs. a piece!
Another farmer talked about dhania (coriander leaves) being transported from Gwalior overnight, on top of buses. We had a very interesting conversation with him about transporting of dhania leaves. He said he prefers transporting on buses because you can handle your own produce (presumably carefully) whereas in trains there are many problems – one, the trains take much longer to reach; two, you have to change trains (or unload/reload at one point); and three, you cannot handle your own produce during transport, only railway workers can. You are allowed to touch your produce only after they unload it completely. He didn’t like that part particularly. On top of buses, he said he could arrange the produce to maximize ventilation which is not possible in trains.
After talking to a lot of traders/helpers, we realized that so much of the produce sold in Lucknow was coming from 200-400km away. And we started wondering what, if anything is grown locally. Finally, I discovered one vegetable that was local: cauliflower, from only 20kms away.
“The Grand Auction”: From mandi trader to buyer
By now it was around 6am and a few negotiations/sales started then. We were told most buyers were shop keepers. There are very few supermarket chains in Lucknow – only Sahara and Spencers – that sell groceries. So most produce was purchased by owners of shops or restaurants, and transaction sizes were in small lots.
I saw one “auction” in process, and I found it to be a farce. We were back at the lauki shop. One buyer showed up and after a bit of negotiation that lasted all of 20 seconds, the pre-sorted large lauki was sold for Rs. 13/kg. There were no competing buyers. The buyer first offered 12, the seller 14, and they obviously settled at 13. A small crowd of 5-6 onlookers joined to observe. The whole process was more like a pre-orchestrated martial arts dance than an auction by any means of imagination.
I imagine that the rest of the buyers coming for lauki that day will pay based on this first price of 13rs/kg. The price to the farmer is also set based on this price, as the mandi traders are allowed a certain fraction of the price as commission and the rest is supposed to be paid to the farmers.
We waited for more transactions, but no other buyers were in sight. So we decided to walk around the whole mandi. The mandi itself seemed very old. There were separate areas marked for ‘aloo-pyaz’, vegetables and fruits. Stalls/shops were of 3 types – concrete (most with bamboo extensions), makeshift, and open air. Most open air ones were small time vendors, except for one who seemed to have a decent sized operation in radish.
There was a decent attempt to keep the place clean, despite the open drains. I saw 2-3 people jhadoo the place. But there were many open drains with lots of mosquitoes, some flies and insects.
By 6:30 am, we could spot other similar sales going on and it seemed that even the animals realized that the action was now over. Cows sauntered in enjoying the discarded fresh produce. Dogs also showed up around the same time in the hopes of finding leftovers from the tiny chai/breakfast shops.
We were told that more small buyers will show up around 7:30 and by 8am everything would be over. We bought 5kg of carrots from one shop and decided to call it a day.