- By Canning S Shabong
|1917 Agri Response Vehicles transporting Farmers' Produce from Laitjem village|
On the evening of 26th March 2020, in the midst of the national lockdown because of COVID19, the Government of Meghalaya took a Cabinet decision that the 1917iTEAMS of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare will procure vegetables for distribution to retail outlets in Shillong and urban areas. In the first place, there was no wholesale and retail outlets selling vegetables in the city as the main market “Iewduh” which is the largest wholesale and retail market in the city is totally closed and locked down as soon as the lockdown was announced. In this scenario, the conventional marketing channel was totally closed and unable to function.Therefore the challenge before the 1917 iTEAMS was how to organise this huge task in the midst of the scare and the risk of exposure to the dreaded virus and link both the distressed farmers and the consumers, who were unable to get their daily requirement in their diet, to keep them going in this sudden closure, which left everyone unprepared.
The iTEAMS management team activated its connection and links to all the value chain players, who are, though not directly involved in vegetable logistics, otherwise involved in other processed produce produced by the farmers. All these players though willing to help in this hour of need, but are risk averse towards highly perishable items like vegetables which have a very short shelf life. They do not have huge State wide distribution logistics which this operation requires nor the demands from their customer base to be able to match. The whole scenario now becomes one of economy of scale and of speed and efficiency of the value chain, which has not been tested in such a situation.
The task for iTEAMS was cut out and although the entire fleet of 17 Agri Response Vehicles and the backend team was ready to response, connecting all the dots is now a big challenge in this circumstance, as iTEAMS was to play a bigger role than its original mandate- which is to just provide logistic support, market linkage and advisory to the farmers. ITEAMS was not designed to be a relief and rehabilitation agency nor a disaster or emergency response agency. Therefore, it has to work purely on a business model, which is partly subsidised by the Government. iTEAMS cannot take the role of a buyer from the markets as it does not have the mandate to do so, nor the distribution network to successfully run a trading business. Farmers need to be paid in cash for their goods, which is the need of the hour and this is not a role of iTEAMS. Many government agencies has tried their hands to put on this cap but the preparedness and core strengths of these agencies made the swim against the tide which they do not have the experience nor the expertise. Such endeavours, though noble ran into severe losses and had to eventually close down. Mizoram is a case in point where the State Government through a State Agency tried to help farmers by purchasing ginger directly from the farmers and selling it in the open market. Due to inherent market risk, and the fluctuating market demands, market volatility and the highly non asymmetric forces, the agency had ran into huge losses and could not provide this service on a sustainable model. Even similar agency in other States have also tried to help farmers market their perishables, but do not have the resources to sustain such operations due to high overheads and low margins.
It was very clear that this is a catch 22 situation in the beginning and it was decided by the iTEAMS management to concentrate only on semi perishables at the present circumstances, as these have a longer shelf life and can potentially be sent to processing agencies for processing. Thus the plight of the farmers whose vegetables are ripe for harvest or already harvested, seems to present a bleak picture for them, as they are staring at huge loses this season. Some brave farmers even posted on Facebook that they are ready to sacrifice and support the government at this time of calamity, as they have reached a point of acceptance of the situation. But on the other hand, there is a huge demand in the entire State of the order of 475 metric tonnnes of fresh fruits and vegetables per day by quick estimates. The East Khasi Hills alone requires about 132 metric tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, based on conservative estimates and 2011 population Census data. If the decadal population growth rate of about 28% is added to these population figures, the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is huge, which cannot be met from local production alone.
|ARV's Transporting Strawberry from Nohron village|
In this backdrop, how can iTEAMS play a role which is over and beyond its original mandate? is the question before the team to plan and organise. Further, with the uncertainties of the situation which is evolving by the hour, how to effectively run an operation of this scale?, which is the first for iTEAMS. The whole team got to work and activated all its resources, connections and channels to try to come to some sort of strategy and coherent response. The team requested all the extension functionaries posted in the various CD Blocks of the State, the district agriculture and horticulture officers to assess the availability of produce from the main production clusters, so as to understand the available supplies. As this exercise is ongoing, the other team got to contact some local Headman and Dorbar Shong to help facilitate and join hands in this endeavour, so that the entire operation could be organised in an orderly and effective manner. Many local headmen called the 1917 iTEAMS hotline and were connected to this logistic chain. Another Team got to work with the State Government and the local administration to request for issuance of curfew passes for the 1917 iTEAMS personnels and ARV’s. The third team went to work to engage all the local online players so that they can take orders from the citizens and provide home delivery. All these online players delivery vehicles were also provided with curfew passes from the district administration. The Deputy Commissioners and their team also provide all the necessary support and facilitation during this planning exercise.
On 27th Morning, the team dispatched its Agri Reponse Vehicles to all the major production clusters of vegetables specially pea producing clusters. 10 tonnes of Peas were lifted from Khweng, Ri-Bhoi, delivered to NARI FRESH in Mawiong for onward distribution to Fair Price Shops (FPS) in the city; another vehicle was sent to Laitjem in East Khasi Hills to lift 5 tonnes of Pea and distributed to Nongthymmai and Lapalang; Another was sent to Syntung to lift strawberries and one to Mylliem to lift vegetables. In West Garo Hills, 4 vehicles of 1917iTEAMS were sent out to Rimrangpara, Rombagre and Amindarangsa and also to Hajongpara in South West Garo Hills District to purchase vegetables like Yam, Papaya, Peas, Tapioca, Brinjal, Rosella etc and later on were distributed in localities of Babupara, DC Park, Akongre, Tetengaja and Police Reserve. One vehicle also ferried essential services to Rombagre Village. In Jaintia Hills, Vehicles were despatched to Niriang village and lifted assorted vegetables for distribution to Jowai market.
|ARV distributing vegetables in the Comunity in West Garo Hills|
The backend team got to work right from 7.00 AM in the morning till 11.00 PM in the night and the Agri Response Hotline received not less than 700 number of incoming calls on its hotline as well as to the team project management numbers which were opened via various social media channels, Whatsapp group and mobile sms. The interesting part is this entire operation was managed by a cross functional team comprising of government officials, domain experts, market experts who worked remotely and from their homes, due to the lockdown. The entire 1917iTEAMS systems is Cloud based, where its core technology system is hosted remotely in servers located in Delhi. All the calls made to iTEAMS is via an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system connected to 32 PRI lines systems, which is multi lingual and integrated with a farmer database of 24,000 farmers connected and registered from across the State. Callers are routed to different Incoming Call Officials (ICO) based on their specific requirements. Those who require ARV are diverted to the Vehicle Despatch Team; those requiring advisory are routed to ICO Level 1 Expert. If the query is not closed by the L1 Expert, it is escalated to a Level 2 domain Expert for resolution.
The ARV operations are also tracked via a GPS system and Vehicle Tracking Software developed locally, which keeps a tab on the trips, distance, time and location of the vehicles. 1917iTEAMS project is a first of its kind in the country, which is designed with a very lean and agile model of functional, operational and staffing system, where the government does not own the assets like vehicles. These ARV’s and Driver are totally outsourced from transport operators who are onboarded to the iTEAMS platform. The entire staffs were also hired from a local recruitment agency on contractual basis. This provides the business environment of a corporate sector agency with the flexibility of a private agency on the lines of a PPP model of operations, which were successful in many sectors, but not widespread though in the agriculture marketing space.
“1917 has done a commendable job lifting produce of distress farmers from different parts of West Jaiñtia hills. We are indeed grateful to the team for helping the farmers in this difficult time and of course for the vegs on our plates” said one FB post. Another reads “Thank you 1917iTEAMS, for the quick response- it has benefited the farmers as a whole”. A Comment by Kupar Lyngdoh also keeps the team morale high, it reads “Since its inception the project mission and vision is unique and the farmers count on 1917, unprecedented, today's turnout. The people of the State can count on your service- Bravo 1917iTEAMS you excite us with your service - When this is all over, rewards from everywhere will hunt you.” Thank you all for all the comments and support to 1917iTEAMS – You keep the team going stronger.
(The writer currently works in the Department of Agriculture & Farmers' Welfare as Assistant Director of Agriculture (Info & IT) & Department Nodal Officer 1917iTEAMS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)