Defending People's milk: same plight, same fight for peasants and fresh milk vendors

by GRAIN | 4 Mar 2022
Supermarket Asia bulletin #25 - March 2022


Defending People's milk: same plight, same fight for peasants and fresh milk vendors

Small dairy farms are an important part of South Asia's rural economy . "People's milk", as most call the milk produced from these local networks, involves hundreds of millions of people, from small-scale farmers and pastoralists to local dairy processors and fresh milk vendors. More than 8 million rural families are engaged in dairy production in Pakistan, and, in India, the People's milk sector accounts for 85 per cent of the national milk market.

A nationwide network of small farmers and vendors on bicycles – dairy on wheels - are common features across South Asia, as in many other parts of the world like Kenya or Colombia. They supply safe, nutritious, and affordable milk to hundreds of millions of families, including urban low-income families. The milk sold by these vendors is half the price than the milk sold through supermarkets or in processed packages. But for years now, the big dairy companies have waged a relentless campaign criticising milk from small dairies and sold by these vendors to try to capture this huge market. They unfairly call it unhygienic, unhealthy, adulterated, and poor quality. To make things worse, the industrial standards pushed by corporations through regulations and free trade agreements are squeezing out the People's milk from the market.

When corporations take over a country's dairy sector, they don't just take over the markets; they transform how dairy farming is done. Among private dairy companies, the trend is clearly towards creating vertically integrated supply chains, starting with their own mega-farms, to milk collection stations and dairy processing plants. Consolidation is happening on the farm too. Dairy herds are getting bigger, and new technologies are squeezing more milk from each cow.

For example, when the Dutch cooperative Friesland Campina, one of the largest multinational milk producers, began operating in Asia it started by procuring from small dairy farmers but then soon after it set up dozens of its own, large dairy farms in Vietnam and Pakistan.

The corporate attack on the dairy sector affects both small dairy farms and fresh milk vendors. It is critical that farmers and vendors come together to resist. Because even though the numbers of smallholder dairy farmers and fresh milk deliverers are considerable, they are often not well organised nor are they connected to each other. Consumers have a big stake in this fight too. The corporate restructuring of the dairy sector will not improve the milk supply for ordinary people; instead it will seriously erode people's access to nutritious and affordable fresh milk.

Food safety standards and regulations designed for industrial processors are a major threat to people's milk. There are plenty of examples of food safety based on trust and local knowledge around the world, each particular to its local culture. Supermarkets, however, are typically unwilling to adjust to such local cultures and impose their own standards. Taking action against supermarkets, whether by putting pressure on them or by supporting local markets is essential to protecting people's milk.

Head banner photo: Gujrat milk vendors, Creative Commons

Across the region

India: Legal case against unfair treatment to street vendors under Covid-19 prevention measures

Police at Kolkata’s Raja Bazaar during lockdown. Photo: PTI

At midnight on 23 March 2020, the Indian government announced a complete nationwide lockdown under Covid-19 prevention measures with only four hours’ notice. Suddenly, all economic and social activities were halted with stay-at-home order. There was no plan B. As was to be expected, many people were stranded in difficult situations and there was an exodus of urban migrants back to their home communities of historical proportions.

In the cities, people locked in their own houses were desperate for basic necessities. The street vendors normally supply these essentials, like milk, fruits and vegetables, even for the urban gated communities where the wealthy live. In these gated communities, there is typically a permit system that allows vendors inside for a fee. Legally, the urban local bodies oversee the regulation of vending services.

The March 23, 2020 order from the National Disaster Management Authority, the nodal authority enforcing the lockdown, classified food items as essentials. But the order was not understood by local police and residents of the gated communities. Fruits and vegetable vendors were therefore stopped at the gates by security guards and chased away by local police. The Resident Welfare Associations of the gated communities saw the vendors as transmission threats, and thus imposed rules blocking their entry and even exercised excessive power to evict them.

Street vendors, like fruit and vegetable sellers, washer men and women, cobblers, and tailors, who had operated for years within the gated communities were suddenly being turned away. Several street vendors decided to file a complaint to the authorities. In one complaint lodged with Delhi police, street vendors alleged they had been charged an annual membership fee of 1200 Indian Rupees (around 16 US$) by a gated community association but were still evicted from their vending locations. Such actions against the street vendors continued even when lockdown restrictions were eased. In the meantime, workers for online food delivery companies were allowed easy access into the gated communities.

During this Covid-19 lockdown, Amazon started its farm-to-doorstep fruit and vegetable deliveries in the city of Pune and announced the recruitment of 70 thousand new workers. They also reported a sharp increase in their 2021 net profit, bolstered by a near 22 per cent increase in net sales.

Another complaint filed to the municipal body alleged that for the past thirty years the Resident Welfare Associations had been extorting money from low-income street vendors operating on public roads. The complaint further alleged that the association used the lockdown and Covid as an excuse to prevent vegetable vendors from accessing residential areas for months, despite the residential roads being public areas.

It is noteworthy that authorities never closed public roads during lockdown, and that these roads were open for listed essential activities including food deliveries, which is specified in the announcement from both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the State Disaster Management Authority. The complaint argued that street vendors had electronic passes made for the lockdown period. In their written and oral complaints, street vendors stated that by prohibiting them from entering the areas, the association granted unjustified favours to delivery companies like Big Basket and Zomato. It was only the vendors who were stopped. They were never allowed a thermal scan-based entry, like for corporate delivery drivers.

The shift to online platforms like Amazon and Zomato, that resulted from the ban of street vendors during lockdown, has dealt a very harsh blow to poor street vendors. It has created behavioural changes, particularly among the younger generation of consumers.

The Resident Welfare Associations played a key role in enforcing these behavioural changes. They are voluntary associations and do not have any statutory powers. But they have created private neighbourhoods with private services and in the process have become de-facto authorities that often bypass existing laws.

The street vendors Act of 2014 for the protection of livelihoods and the regulation of street vending, mandates that no street vendors can be evicted or relocated until a proper inspection has been carried out and vending certificates have been issued. In New Delhi, the street vendors’ survey process was initiated in 2021 and is still in progress. Determining vending zones, the number of vendors allowed in each zone and vending plans are yet to be examined by relevant authorities. However, street vendors evicted from residential associations during lockdown risk being excluded from this process, as well as from legal protection and regulation.

The Hawkers Joint Action Committee works for the protection of street vendors supplying essentials like milk, vegetables, fruits, spices and basic food grains and even providing emergency relief assistance. It has worked with local authorities and police to issue movement passes for the street vendors, ensuring hawkers can continue to work with reasonable restrictions during the height of the pandemic. And, through officially elected members of Town Vending Committees, it is working with municipal authorities and local police to allocate vending spaces where social distancing can be practised. It also organised virtual training for street vendors on Covid, food safety and hygiene. There is no justification for preventing street vendors from selling and providing basic needs under the pretext of them being a transmission threat. Any measures based on such a false justification need to be revoked immediately.

Article by Hawkers Joint Action Committee
For further information: Dharmendra Kumar, [email protected]

From the news

Incomes dip for South Asia's women home workers as heat rises
Anuradha Nagaraj, Reuters

Women who make goods, like clothing and street food, are producing less because of climate disasters, hurting their fragile livelihoods, a survey finds.

Mamtaben, an Indian street-food vendor, has also seen her income shrink as heat and unseasonal rains reduce the length of time she can hawk her wares. "Because the weather is so hot, all the food prepared gets spoilt and wasted if we don't sell it the same day," Mamtaben was quoted as saying in the report, which examined the impact of climate change on home-based workers.

Dying to deliver: Overworked in South Korea
Al Jazeera 101

An investigation report shows the deadly price Korean delivery workers are paying for online shopping convenience. Since the pandemic began, 21 delivery drivers have died. Death by overwork is so common, there is even a term for it in South Korea – Kwarosa.

Food… inglorious food
Al Jazeera

The phrase “you are what you eat” is in common usage, but what if you do not know exactly what you are eating? How about horse meat lasagna, or olive oil that is not actually made from olives, or tuna steaks laced with deadly nitrates?

These and other counterfeit and adulterated foods have been put on sale on supermarket shelves around the world – cheap and sometimes dangerous fakes of the real thing, sometimes of even the most expensive premium products. It is a secretive and deadly multibillion-dollar trade that defrauds legitimate producers and poses huge health risks to consumers. A two-part investigation on criminal corruption in the international food business.

“Strange paradox:” Rural towns surrounded by farmland are losing food access
Amanda Perez Pintado, In These Times

In many rural areas across the US, dollar stores are replacing local grocery stores and farmers’ market. A USDA report published last year found that, as the number of local grocery stores declined from 1990 to 2015, dollar stores and supercenters steadily grew.

The closure of local food stores leaves residents, especially those in areas with high poverty rates and dwindling population, with fewer options to buy food. Rural populations are forced to drive longer distances to purchase food. This may be a larger issue for low-income residents who are not able to afford transportation. An Illinois town responded by opening a community-owned market, offering neighbors fresh produce, meat and deli items. Farmers’ markets offer a way to overcome the problem of food accessibility in rural communities according to Jennifer Paulson of Food Works, a southern Illinois nonprofit.

Ninjacart pockets $145mn in fresh funding from Flipkart, Walmart
Debjyoti Roy, Livemint

Ninjacart, a business-to-business marketplace for agricultural produce, has raised US$145 million in a fresh round of funding from an existing investor, US retail giant Walmart Inc, and its Indian e-commerce arm Flipkart. Flipkart offers groceries in 1,800 cities and towns and aims to take its offering to 2,000 more towns by mid-next year. Fresh fruits and vegetables will be an integral part of the expansion.

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Author: GRAIN
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