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Twists and turns in Bappa value chain

Manasi Phadke | Updated on August 28, 2020 Published on August 28, 2020

Ganesha idol makers need their own ‘fair trade movement’ — traceability, standardisation, eco-certification and market connect

Come Ganesh festival in Maharashtra, and the lanes and bylanes of all cities and towns are transformed into a colourful display of Lord Ganesha idols. Traditional Ganapati Bappa idols made in a sleepy little town “Pen” are particularly in great demand during the season.

The Bappa value chain (clay-idols-traders-customers) offers interesting similarities with agriculture value chains, both in terms of issues as well potential solutions.

The two value chains

For both the value chains, production is not instantaneous and takes months to complete. The Ganesh festival is normally held in August, but idol-designing commences in previous September. Just as traditional bio-fertilisers got overwhelmingly replaced by chemical fertilisers in agriculture, clay from Gujarat has been replaced by POP (Plaster of Paris) from Rajasthan in the idol business. Artisans in Pen used to rub mica powder into clay in order to give the idol a soft glow — a USP of the Pen idols.

However, the same lustre was naturally available in POP, which was also far cheaper, sturdier as well as lighter to handle. The maximum business is generated by supplying 4-10 feet idols to Ganesh mandals. Clay idols of height four feet would weigh a hefty 100 kg, hence the acceptance for POP as a preferred material. Today, only about 5- 10 per cent of the idols are made using clay exclusively; Pen has thus pretty much become a POP town. The process from design to the final product takes nearly 7-8 months to complete.

From January onwards, traders from all over the State start visiting the kaarkhanaas (factories). They make an advance payment of 10 per cent and book their idols. Traders cater to two major segments — the retail customers and the Ganesh mandals. Whilst the former accounts for volumes, the latter accounts for value. Once the tempo carrying the idols is delivered to the destination, the travel cost and the remaining 90 per cent of the payment is made to the idol-maker. The risk of not being able to sell the idols now rests with the trader.

Uncannily, in both the value chains, producer share in the retail value has remained stuck at about 30 per cent. Farmers normally are reluctant to oversee marketing — who will harvest the fields if they are out in the markets the entire day? Ditto idol-makers.

They are so busy overseeing the final touch-ups and packing the delicate idols for travel that they’ve stayed away from markets. Typically, the cost of transportation of the idol to the destination and the day charges of the artisan travelling with the tempo account for about 20 per cent of the retail price. This implies that traders’ share is 50 per cent of the retail price.

Land is important to both value chains. The idol-making industry is space intensive — the average idol factory produces 15,000 idols. The idols dry out in the yards or makeshift sheds or even fields — unseasonal rains can be a disaster. From 2006 onwards, a huge land acquisition programme for the Maha-Mumbai SEZ commenced in Raigad. Overnight, the land rates in Pen had catapulted to nearly ₹15 lakh per acre. Even as an enormous amount of SEZ money entered Pen, the cottage industry lost two of its important supports — cheap land and skilled artists, who were unwilling to work as day labourers now. It is no wonder then that the idol industry started moving out in concentric circles around Pen to newer villages — Hamrapur, Joha, Dadar.

Covid impact

The idol-makers are in trouble, and that is an understatement. The Government of Maharashtra had allowed POP idols to be marketed for the Ganesh festival in 2020. Thus, huge amount of POP material was bought in October 2019 and idols were created. Traders had even pre-booked idols in January and February, when the Covid struck.

As the pandemic spread, it became increasingly obvious to Ganesh mandals that they may not be able to set up their usual pandals in August. Traders started cancelling orders and idol makers were left holding a huge stock of half-finished idols made from POP.

The Covid has also changed the retail customer significantly. Customers now want to carry out immersion of the idol at home, which suddenly increased the demand for small clay idols.

However, by the time the idol makers realised the changes in the demand profile, it was late April. There were transport and lockdown issues all over the country. They couldn’t get the clay from Gujarat to process the orders. Skilled artisans were not readily available due to the lockdown.

Thus, supply could not respond to increased demand. Traders have been buying clay idols off each other. Prices for clay idols increased, but the idol makers were already locked into a price with the traders and did not benefit from the demand-supply mismatch.

Fair trade initiative

The economic and ecological skewness in the Bappa value chain has to be corrected. Emulation of the “Fair Trade” movement could perhaps be a solution. A fair trade initiative requires all actors within the value chain to be committed to standardised norms of produce.

The Department of Industries, Government of Maharashtra, could initiate a dialogue between suppliers from Gujarat, idol makers from Pen, traders, consumer associations, environmentalists and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) on acceptable material and colour standards of the idols.

Certification agencies need to be notified about the standards. All the idols manufactured by the fair trade partner artisans can then carry an “Eco Bappa” sticker with barcode. The barcode should enable a video clip with which the customer gets access to making of the Bappa. The customers agree to pay a higher price for the traceable, standardised and certified Eco Bappa.

Trader partners make sure that the artisans get a higher share in the higher price. The Government acts as an enabler and a branding partner. Agri-culture and Bappa-culture both need traceability, standardisation, certification and market connect to survive in a competitive world.

The writer is a Pune-based economist

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Published on August 28, 2020
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