What if your local market had fresh orchids from Arunachal, seasonal apples from Kashmir, flowers from Latur, pineapple from Manipur, betel leaves and coconuts from Tamil Nadu? The Narendra Modi government’s Kisan Rail has now made that possible.
Started in August 2020 as an initiative to increase farmers’ incomes, Kisan Rail makes use of one of India’s best resources – its extensive rail network – to transport perishable agri-products such as milk, meat and fish. It’s a cold storage on wheels. In one of its latest consignments, it transported 1,725 tonnes of mangoes under 10 days in April from Visakhapatnam to Delhi.
The Kisan Rail is becoming increasingly popular with farmers in India – in December last year, PM Modi flagged off the 100th Kisan Rail train – because it is cheaper, faster, opens up new markets and, most importantly, it has no minimum price or quantity requirement. So, small and marginal farmers can send as little as “few dozen eggs sent from Manmad to Khandwa, for which Railways charged a freight of Rs 34.” But the initiative earns the Railways in lakhs too.
What started as a service between Devlali in Maharashtra and Danapur in Bihar, has now crisscrossed the country — from Delhi to Agartala to Nagpur to Howrah to Warangal. Farmers also get a subsidy of 50 per cent from the Ministry of Food Processing Industries for transporting certain fruits and vegetables.
It is a boost to incomes and a solution to India’s cold supply chain problem.
A success story
India is one of the largest producers of fruits and vegetables in the world. Currently, most horticultural produce is transported by trucks, adding to pollution, road congestion and delays in supply, apart from leaving small farmers hostage to transporters and middlemen. So, 30-40 per cent of our fruits and vegetables get spoilt before they can reach the consumer.
Kisan Rail aims to transport agricultural produce to distant markets, connect large urban centres with small towns and villages in the rural hinterland and enable two-way trade and transport of produce. This is especially useful for linking northeast India with the rest of the country. And it benefits small and marginal farmers who constitute 86 per cent of agriculturists in India by giving them the opportunity to transport and sell their products directly at places where they can get a better price.
“Kisan Rail leads me to the big Delhi market and fetches a higher price for my flowers at low transportation cost,” Bibhisan Nade of Maharashtra’s Latur district told Mumbai Mirror.
The halts of the Kisan Rail have been tailormade for farmers. No limit has been placed on the minimum size of consignments. Loading stations have been located at small stations, away from major junctions like Nashik and Jalgaon where the loading time is limited due to congestion.
The Kisan Rail has already transported over 80,000 tonnes of produce. And it is showing results. According to officials, the Kisan Rail cut transport time by 15 hours and saved farmers Rs 1,000 per tonne just in its first few runs. Some horticulturists in Latur also reported a 25 per cent increase in their income.
So far, the Kisan Rail has ferried eggs, turmeric, flowers, pomegranate, potatoes, chillies, oranges, among other goods. To boost this new and efficient network, India is building more cold storage facilities at railway stations.
But the transportation system still has a few bottlenecks.
“The product is handled in their crates at least six times — at the farm, at the source station, while loading it to the train at the source, unloading at the source, at the destination station, and finally at the mandi, resulting in increased chances of wastage of the produce…. Secondly, the cold storage facility in the country needs to significantly improve and more and more stations must have cold storage facilities to maximise the potential of Kisan Rails,” wrote Rouhin Deb in ORF.
Why cold storage matters
Post-harvest losses in India amount to about Rs 32,000 crore, mostly attributed to the lack of cold chains. Of the 104 million tonnes of perishable produce annually transported between our cities, only 4 million tonnes are transported in reefer (refrigerated) containers. A single freight train with an electric locomotive can replace 200 trucks and ease congestion on India’s highways. If it’s part of the cold supply chain, it can lower losses too. But to do that, farmers need pre-transportation cooling of produce.
The Container Corporation of India (CONCOR), a PSU spun off the Indian Railways in 1989, has developed infrastructure for reefer (refrigerated) container trailers at the handling terminals. CONCOR currently has these facilities available at its inland container depots (ICD) at Dadri and Kanpur. The power to the units while on tracks is provided by specially designed power packs loaded on trains.
Fresh & Healthy Enterprises, a wholly owned subsidiary of CONCOR, has a ‘controlled atmosphere store’ in north India and is opening smaller facilities as part of its ‘farm to table’ strategy. It also has ‘special ventilated containers for perishable cargoes to move on rails without corresponding refrigeration facilities’. Fresh & Healthy Enterprises could procure produce from small producers’ cooperatives following the Amul model, which has been successful in making India the world’s largest milk producer.
Even though India still needs roads and trucks for last-mile connectivity, Kisan Rail is already proving to be a game-changer. The biggest problem with success stories in India is scalability. But given the extensive rail network, this should not be a problem at all.
Venkatesan Ashok is a former diplomat, and currently Visiting Professor at IIT Gandhinagar, Adjunct Professor at IIT Bombay and NIAS, Bengaluru. Views are personal.
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