One Sunday morning this January, I visited a market for organic produce, located amid dense bougainvillea creepers and rows of trees on the grounds of the 6-decade-old Christian Hospital in Bissamcuttack – a town in western Odisha’s Kalahandi district.
Odisha, especially Kalahandi, has words like ‘backward’ and ‘poor’ routinely associated with it. But the western region of this state has breathtaking ecological and cultural diversity, and this weekly Bissamcuttack market is an ongoing experiment to nurture the area’s ecologically-attuned agricultural traditions. The market wants to forge a close connection between consumers and farmers who practise such traditions – thus consciously departing from the dominant phenomenon of chemical inputs-driven, mechanised agriculture, which leaves farmers deeply vulnerable to global market shocks.
The sellers I met with that Sunday morning were all Adivasi farmers from villages in the area. Some were setting up stalls as I walked around, others were still arriving on bicycles or motorcycles, ferrying their wares in baskets and sacks.
The produce ranged from freshly harvested vegetables, pulses, herbs, and greens, to food items central to Adivasi agriculture and diets, such as nutritious millets, roots and tubers.
The buyers were mostly hospital staff, who, trickling in through the morning, made their purchases over leisurely conversations with the farmers. They chatted about aspects of unusual produce such as tubers, the farmers’ agricultural methods and knowledge, and even sought advice on how to control pests in their home plants without using chemicals.
Most significantly, all rates for the produce had been pre-decided through consultations between buyers and sellers with the aim of ensuring that the farmers recover their costs of production, and earn something over and above it (a long-standing recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers, which remains unimplemented). For instance, on that morning, tomatoes were selling at the pre-decided rate of ₹20 rupees a kg – higher than the then prevailing market rates of ₹10 to ₹15. Every three months, rate charts for the market were mutually revised by both sides.
The intimate transactions unfolding at the Bissamcuttack farmers’ market were a sharp contrast to scenes I had witnessed just days ago in the tomato-producing belt of Nashik district in Western India. Here, farmers across the district, practising inputs-intensive monoculture routines, were hit by rock-bottom prices (as low as ₹0.50 to ₹2 a kg), struggling to recover just the costs of transporting their produce to the mandi.
Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, an Odisha-based organisation, conceived of the market as a space where middle class consumers could interact with the actual producers of the food they eat. He also wanted the former to get exposed to rich Adivasi traditions of agricultural knowledge, under threat from chemical inputs-driven agriculture. “Our thought was to initiate a consumer-producer network as one of the conscious strategies to work with consumers and create a space for them to interact with their food. And with producers to generate a sense of connect within them with agriculture, and the issues of social and environmental justice in food. The market nurtures the ‘Nature-Agriculture-Culture-Community’ continuum and promotes direct, fair and short distribution chains,” said Debjeet.
As I chatted with the hospital staff like Dr. John Oomen, who worked with Debjeet and the farmers on setting up the market, I mentioned how scenes here were a welcome change from the farmers’ distress I had seen in Nashik just days ago. “The purpose here is not scale, but to get farmers a decent price, and to learn what we can from them,” said Oomen. “Our world probably does not need The Big Solution’, but many small ones, designed and managed locally.”
All photos by Chitrangada ChoudhuryAbout the author:Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist and researcher based in Odisha.