By Kishor Kumar Kalita
Assam has been the trade and business provider for the entire Northeast since time immemorial. Many traditiol marketplaces are considered as centers of not only commodity sale or exchange but also as melting pots of different tribes and communities. In the early days, due to communication obstacles, there were few opportunities for people of different localities to mingle. Therefore, traditiol markets were the ‘place of commons’ where apart from trade and commerce, socio-cultural thoughts were shared and exchanged. The weekly markets or ‘haats’ also reflect the socio-economic development of a particular area where people get opportunities to sell or barter some of their produce, whether it is cultivated, gathered from forest or crafted. These markets are usually held under the canopy of big, old trees in the same places as they have been held since times past. Different haats cater to the varying needs of local people, both tribal and non-tribal, in different localities; therefore, each haat has its own different flavor, color and size.
In ‘Periodic Market Centers and Rural Development’ (1970), Johnson has mentioned certain important features of a weekly market which are: 1) traditiol weekly markets are the contact points of peasant society where rural folk meet each other irrespective of their localities and make exchange of commodity, thoughts and varying elements of culture, 2) such markets are the means of distributing local products and exchanging rural surplus, 3) weekly markets are venues for purchase of daily requirement, 4) globally, markets are recognized as a place of amusement where farmers, traders, laborers and other sections of the community interact with each other and also share elements of culture as well as amusement. In a study conducted by the Business Administration department of Tezpur University under the title of ‘SWOT Alysis of Traditiol Weekly Market Network System – A Comparative Study in Tribal and Non-Tribal Areas in Middle Assam’, a number of age-old traditiol weekly markets which have been in existence even in 21st century, were covered. This report identified the weekly market as a place of exchange of goods and services, which flow from rural to urban, urban to rural and within the rural areas. People usually sell their agricultural produce in nearby weekly markets and therefore the weekly market plays a major role in Assam economy. The summary of this report reads as –“In Assam, most of the purchasers spent morning and afternoon in the market than evening. Bargaining is common in buying vegetables and cloths. Buyers and sellers meet each other in the weekly market and because of that they maintained a good relationship with each other. Besides that, several social and cultural and economical activities take place in the weekly market.”
According to a recent report published in the year 2001, there are as many as 7,161 regulated markets in the country. Apart from these primary wholesale markets, there are around 34,587 locations (weekly market, haats, shandies etc.) in rural areas where farmers and other rural people meet periodically to sell their surplus produce. (Source: D. V. Kasar, S. N. Tilekar and G. G. Joshi (2006) of Mahatma Phuley Krishi Vidhyapeeth, Rahuri, published paper ‘Need for Restructuring the Agricultural Marketing System’) Though a systematic study covering the entire regulated and non-regulated markets has not yet been done in this part of the country, but gradual reformation, imposed through the means of legislative and administrative instruments, have pushed these markets from their earlier traditiol position to a free market orientation.
The Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act of 1972 is a law to provide for better regulation of buying and selling of agricultural produce and the establishment of market for agricultural produce in the State of Assam. The Act was amended in 2006 to allow for provisions laid down in the Modal Act. The State government has constituted a State Agricultural Marketing Board consisting of a Chairman and 17 other members. Under Section 3 of the said Act, the Assam State Agricultural Marketing Board (ASAMB), Guwahati was established in 1976. The amendment of the Act has given the provision for establishment of private market yard and consumer market by developing infrastructure by any person or group of persons in any market yard. Any person or body desirous of purchasing produce directly from farmer or establishing a market will be required to have registration with prescribed fees. Under Section 13(2) of the Act, license is issued to market functiories like traders, commission agents, brokers, weighmen, measurer, surveyors, warehousemen etc., for doing their business in a market area, by the concerned Regulated Market Committee on payment of such fees as prescribed. As per the discussion with ASAMB, 7000 licenses have been given to traders all over the State.
Though these reformative measures seem good for better regulation of the existing rural and urban markets, but certain specific provisions of the Act, along with a number of administrative orders promulgated from time to time by different authorities, have eroded the traditiol privileges of local traders, and thereby provide passage to outsiders to do business in these primordial markets. These can be explained in two ways. Firstly, when administrative and legal reforms are imposed upon the traditiol market system, most of the opportunities are grabbed by those traders who hail from an economically superior and advantageous class. For example, local illiterate village folk, who used these traditiol markets as a place of economic and cultural interaction, hardly get any benefit of reformative measures such as bidding or license. As a result, whatever consequences brought through reformation goes against the interests of local petty traders and vendors, who traditiolly believe the market as a ‘place of commons’. Secondly, if the authority wants to construct permanent buildings to allocate regular spaces to the vendors, such measures always drive away irregular vendors from the market and thereby permanently close off vending opportunities for those who sell their own produce in the market. It creates a class of middlemen, who in the absence of local vendors, develop a structure of business syndicate, whereby price hiking of all agricultural products is initiated.
Most traditiol markets of Guwahati city are now witnessing such a transition which eventually tries to drive off indigenous vendors from their ‘place of commons’ and seeks to accommodate outsiders in the newly-constructed markets. We should remember that residential and commercial areas of Guwahati city to a large extent were once held by tribal people, where tribal societies had full expression of their group life and social interactions. Land market and brokers pushed back the aborigils to the frontiers of margilization. Now for the sake of smart city, the government wants to replace the historical markets of the city with concrete buildings, where presumably the indigenous people will get meager space. If our traditiol markets disappear for the causes of city beautification and creation big markets and malls, then where will these indigenous vendors go to sustain their livelihood! And a bigger question: Where are we heading in the me of development ?
(The writer is an advocate in Gauhati High Court)