By Benjamin Graham
Published in The Kathmandu Post
July 23, 2010
KATHMANDU, Nepal - Squatting under the midday sun, an elderly woman pauses from her cigarette to cover her mangos with a piece of canvas. In the next stall, her husband idly sips milk tea, watching their two children sleep soundly on sacks of potatoes.
This is Kalimati Market, the largest wholesale vegetable market in Kathmandu, but the afternoon scene here is a far cry from what plays out earlier in the day. Under the cool darkness of morning, brightly-painted trucks back up to concrete-loading docks, delivering hundreds of tonnes of fresh vegetables into the dokos of wincing labourers. Shuffling through the sea of shops and customers, the laborers carry the produce to waiting vendors. The vendors organise their books, inhaling deeply before shouting out the morning's deals to the swarms of customers now surging toward their booths.
By 9 am, calm is restored and tea can be served.
Except for the occasional banda, Kalimati Fruit and Vegetable Market has been following this routine daily since its establishment in 1986.
Under the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture, the market has grown from several dusty, open-air vegetable stands in a vacant lot, to a thriving wholesale market supplying vegetables to every corner of the Valley. In a country where 66 percent of the population is employed in agriculture, producing 36 percent of total GDP, Kalimati has become one of the beating hearts of Kathmandu, and indeed, all of Nepal. Yet as the center point of so many livelihoods, Kalimati is, inevitably, not without its own problems.
Jammed in a far corner of the market's main building, Indira and Aarati Thapa have sold tea from their tiny canteen 24 hours a day for the last seven years.
"I remember when I first started working here seven years ago, the floors were covered in layers of mud so we used to wear rain boots to serve tea," Indira says with a grin.
She agrees that conditions have improved in Kalimati, but complains about the unchecked growth within the market, which mirrors the rapid growth around the city. "Rent has doubled over the last seven years, and it's difficult to keep up with all of the new canteens that keep opening up."
She also complains about the garbage; a sea of brown mango peels, rotten vegetable rinds, and mouldy newspaper clumps that sprawls across the pavement, breeding bacteria and exacerbating the woes of Kathmandu's already beleaguered garbage problems.
Despite multiple development projects and composting campaigns in the past, dump trucks continue to haul away only a portion of the market's five tonnes of daily waste, leaving behind enough garbage for the few women and children who squat knee-deep in the overflow, meticulously picking out left-over morsels to resell.
The current infrastructure of Kalimati, its sprawling concrete warehouse and multitude of sheds covered with sheets of aluminium, is the result of a development project by the Government of Nepal from the late 80's. The market has achieved some success in fulfilling its original purpose--to give an organised shape to the wholesale market of agricultural produce in Nepal--but its rapid growth has made staying 'organised' a difficult task. Unofficial vendors and customers have spilled out into the streets and up the sidewalks, peddling brown bananas and scrawny potatoes, because of the lack of space inside.
Despite the chaos, an elaborate supply chain has developed over the years to facilitate the journey of a potato from the fields of rural Nepal and place it, smothered in curry, on a dinner plate in Kathmandu. Along the way, the vegetable will pass through the hands of a diverse array of Nepalis--people from different castes, geographical locations, and economic situations--all of whom can be found within Kalimati's gates.
Each morning in Dahding VC, Gurungcha Nepali rises with the sun to water his crops: eggplant, radishes, peppers, lady's finger, cabbage, and cauliflower. A simple farmer for most of his life, Gurungcha decided to take matters into his own hands two years ago.
"Now I bring my own vegetables directly to Kalimati once or twice a week," he says. His vegetables are currently spewed across the floor of his stall, where he them into 'fresh' and 'rotten' piles. The five-hour drive over difficult terrain from his house to Kathmandu is well worth the trouble. "It's pretty easy to sell my produce here. In my village everyone grows their own vegetables, so there's no one to buy mine," he adds.
Gurungcha's case is unique in that he is able to grow, transport, and sell his goods himself, cutting out the cost of a middleman. In most cases, farmers depend on the middle man to buy their vegetable yield and then sell it to vendors in Kalimati.
Between the farmer and the vegetable vendor, the role of middleman has developed into a profession of its own over the years, but it requires haggling skills as well as the ability to transport tonnes of produce in a timely manner.
Mainuddin Basnet has been playing the role of middleman and vendor at Kalimati for 25 years. "I have a partnership with my relatives in Rautaha district. They plant vegetables; my sons drive 12 hours to bring the yield here; and I sell all of it from my stall."
His customers include restaurant owners, shop keepers, and even bicycle vendors. To make ends meet, Mainuddin now resides in Kalimati and works in his stall from 3am to 8pm each day. "The long hours and constant haggling can be difficult, but I'm grateful that I can support my family."
The beauty of Kalimati market is not only that it provides a platform for rural farmers to sell their vegetables to those in the Valley, but it also enables all types of entrepreneurs, from the Soaltee Crown Plaza to the single mother sitting behind her nanglo, to buy bulk produce at a low price in the mornings, and then resell it for a profit throughout the day.And that is just how Pratima Sharma supports herself and her son. Rising each morning before dawn, the young mother makes her way to Kalimati and pushes through the crowds. During the current season, she buys lemons; 500 each day, and then resells them, usually somewhere near Ratna Park. She claims to make Rs. 200 per day, which is just enough to support herself and her son. She appreciates Kalimati because it provides her with an income, but like so many others that deal with the madness of the market, it is a love-hate relationship. "Sometimes the dealer likes to get rid of his bad lemons by slipping them in with the good ones I buy, but it's okay, I survive."