Recently, the Indian Central Government requested all State Governments to delist fruits and vegetables from the Agriculture Produce Market Committees Act (APMC Act). This was to address rising price in fruits and vegetables. I was trying to understand how this would affect things going forward. A basic analysis of what I think is going to happen is given below.
Currently, the APMC Act makes it mandatory for farmers to sell their produce only to licensed merchants at mandis set up by state agriculture marketing boards. So, it is being said that delisting will eliminate these licensed merchants or middlemen who set up a cartel and raise the prices for super normal profits. So, farmers will now be able to sell directly to retailers or food processors and hence the buyers will get fruits and vegetables at a lower price.
In addition, commissions earned by the agents, mandi tax, octroi, VAT or sales tax and inter-state movement charges add to the price of fruits and vegetables. Delisting from APMC Act would enable sale of fruits and vegetables to happen without payment of commissions, mandi tax/cess. This means that delisting would certainly wipe out state revenues from mandi tax/cess and potentially reduce price but will it enable farmers to sell directly to consumers/buyers and avoid traders/commission agents?
Does the farmer sell at the APMC market even today? The Planning Commission says that 75% of farmers sell their produce at the farmgate to traders, aggregators and sometimes contract buyers. In earlier initiatives taken in Bihar or even Andhra Pradesh and a few other states, doing away with APMC Act restrictions or setting up of Farmer Markets have not been able to eliminate middle men completely and that is due to practical issues. It is mostly the aggregators or agents who take farmer certificate and sell under their name in the farmer market. For the sake of convenience, a group of farmers generally find somebody from the village and sell their produce to him and he gets a license to operate in this market as a “farmer”. This is to arrive at a commercially viable and practical aggregation volume for transportation and time saving.
This means that under current situation, farmers are not reaching the APMC mandi anyways because of practical difficulties. How will they reach the consumer directly now when the fruits and vegetables have been delisted?They will need intermediaries or they will need consumers to reach out to them directly. Consumers will not be able to reach farmers directly. Fact is, they will need intermediaries, be it the local aggregators or the corporate retailers/buyers.
Question is, how do you ensure that the intermediaries do not form a cartel that jacks up prices for buyers once again? Will this deregulation reduce strength of cartels or lead to an increase in their power? In the past, states have delisted fruits and vegetables but haven’t succeeded in breaking cartels. So it is unlikely that cartels will get demolished just by delisting. The cartel will weaken only when alternate channels are built to enable competition. Delisting enables corporate buyers to buy directly without having to depend upon intermediaries or having to enroll at the mandi and having to pay mandi cess. So, this will increase competition (at the cost of state revenues) but how will they reach farmers immediately? It is obvious that It is not going to immediately cool off the prices and it needs long term efforts in addition to just delisting. Unless multiple mutually independent market players enter the market, the pains of having to deal with high price will continue.
Another key component of the high price is spoilage that happens due to lack of appropriate cold chain facilities and change of multiple hands. So, it is important that this delisting initiative is followed by building physical infrastructure and competitive markets.
Such infrastructure has to be built by both private and public resources. Through policy stability and direction, large corporate buyers will now be encouraged to set up procurement networks deep into producing locations. It is also important that the state continues to provides alternate channels to farmers by building cold chain and storage facilities and supporting development of multiple options of storage and sale. Unless this is done, the corporate buyer may form one more cartel.
Let’s face it. Farmers will not reach retailers or consumers directly. We will need intermediaries, be it local aggregators or corporate buyers. We have to take steps to improve efficiency in movement of fruits and vegetables through these intermediary channels to ensure quality at the right price.
It is easier said than done. Delisting of fruits and vegetables is the first, easy to implement step (though politically difficult). It must be followed by a series of difficult to implement steps that promote appropriate infrastructure to improve efficiency and ensure availability of fruits and vegetables at the right price. Hopefully, after paying the appropriate mandi taxes.
What do you think?