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The Crop Shop - From toothpaste to tractors, this rural mall has it all
Outlook - 04 Oct 2004

Rafiqganj, about four kilometres from Sehore town in Madhya Pradesh, is not a city, nor even a one-horse town. It is a little village...except that it boasts of having the first rural shopping mall in the country. Chaupal Sagar, set up by cigarette giant ITC, stands on an eight-acre plot with a shopping area of 7,000 square feet.

Along with soaps, detergents and toothpaste, the mall sells almost everything — TVs, DVD players, pressure cookers, room heaters, watches, sewing machines and grinders. And, of course, cigarettes. Farmers can also buy motorbikes, or even tractors. ITC has launched its own rural range of clothing and shoes too — trousers at Rs 166 a pair tailored for the village folk.

The mall seems to be doing brisk business. Though its launch is in the first week of October, it has informally opened its doors to buyers. ITC says the daily sales is already between Rs 70,000 to 80,000. TVs and DVD players are among the costlier items that have found rural customers. "The idea is to create a one-stop destination for farmers," says S. Shivkumar, chief executive officer of ITC.

Chaupal Sagar is a bit different from city malls. What had started four years ago as an experiment to use IT tools to enable farmers find the best price for their produce has now metamorphosed into this shopping idea. The scenario ITC foresees is something like this: post-harvest, the farmer, with his family, drives into Chaupal Sagar in a tractor trolley laden with the grain he proposes to sell. He parks the tractor on the digital weighing bridge close to the entry point. His grain weighed, he drives on to the godown where the produce is unloaded and he gets his money.

Meanwhile, his kids can enjoy the swings and video games and his wife may be going around the shopping mall mentally drawing up a shopping list. Cash in hand, the farmer family can then make its purchases and drive back by evening, with the tractor laden with the goodies. If they like, they can have a bite in the cafeteria. And the farmer may even carry fertilisers and pesticides for the next crop and get his tractor fuelled at the diesel pump.

The villagers are delighted at the new shopping experience. But the key question will be whether they will show interest once the novelty factor wears out. "I will definitely come here with my family," says 65-year-old Kaluram from Piparia who has come just to "have a look." Sunil, 12, walks confidently to one of the racks where his favourite biscuits are stacked. Sunil is no city-bred kid, he lives in a small hamlet. If he is not overawed by the sprawling mall, it is because he is a regular visitor. "I come here practically everyday while on my way back from school," he says.

The shopping area is only a part of the vast Chaupal Sagar. At the back of the mall is a godown where ten thousand tonnes of grain can be stored. Then, the entertainment area with video games and swings. A diesel pump, a cafeteria and a soil-testing laboratory are also coming up and so is a sale point for fertilisers, pesticides and other agro-inputs. A bank, an insurance company office and a training centre for farmers will complete the set-up. If he needs to, the farmer can consult a doctor who will be available on the premises.

According to ITC, the Chaupal Sagar is the logical culmination of the e-chaupal scheme launched by the company in Madhya Pradesh. These e-chaupals were small units set up to help farmers. Typically, each unit has a Rs 2 lakh infrastructure including a computer, a ups and a telephone line for logging on to the internet. A room in the house of a medium-level farmer usually served as the e-chaupal. The sanchalak — as this farmer would be designated—  provides free information to the others about the prices and demand for agriculture produce in different mandis.The sanchalaks got a commission when a farmer sold his produce to ITC.

The experiment started with four e-chaupals. Presently there are 1,700 units in 26 districts. It is the success of these farmer-run centres that made ITC think about launching the Sagar Chaupal which would serve as a organised retail outlet. According to ITC, fast moving consumer goods and white goods manufacturers are keen to tap the fast prospering rural markets. If the Chaupal Sagar set up at a princely cost of Rs 4.5 crore succeeds, then ITC has plans to set up five rural malls in Madhya Pradesh by next March. But the proof will be in the volume of sales. In the metros many malls are doing slack business with more window-shoppers than buyers. Will the rural populace of Sehore be any different?