Call it green terror. You won’t be far off the mark. Every time you buy vegetables, a part of the money goes to underworld gangs led by Arun Gawli and Ashwin Naik.
On January 23, dna published an expose detailing how there is a 500% mark-up in vegetable prices from the time they leave the Agriculture Market Produce Committee (APMC) gates in Navi Mumbai to retail markets across the metropolis.
A syndicate of unscrupulous traders, who are hand-in-glove with the dons and enjoy political backing, are the villains here. Though the role of the underworld in the vegetable market first came to light in 2002, successive governments have done little and it’s strong even today.
On December 24, 2002, AG Tambale, an upright secretary of the APMC, was gunned down outside his office in the market in broad daylight. The killer, who allegedly belonged to the Arun Gawli gang, was hired by the traders’ syndicate to eliminate Tambale. The lone assailant used a sophisticated 9 mm pistol to gun down Tambale.
Tambale, an officer in his forties, had taken upon himself the task of reforming the market and ensuring that APMC rules are followed.
Initially, the syndicate tried to bribe him, but when it didn’t work, they threatened him with dire consequences. Not only did Tambale refuse to budge, but he went ahead and suspended the licences of 32 traders, allegedly involved in illegal practices.
Tambale’s decision was later stayed by then minister of state for marketing Rajesh Shingde. The minister’s intervention showed the powerful political connections of the syndicate.
Tambale had opposed the ‘hatta’ system, under which traders clasp each others’ hands under a towel and fix prices through secret codes.
Tambale insisted on open auction of the vegetables and fruits. Even 11 years after the gruesome murder of Tambale, the open auction system is observed more in its breach. Said a trader at APMC: “The syndicate is all too powerful because it has the backing of the underworld. Nobody dares to raise his voice against these goondas.”
At least 200 trucks loaded with vegetables enter APMC every night. By early morning, the syndicate dictates the prices for the day. Also, some of the trucks owned by the mafia are also allowed to directly enter the city and they cater to the needs of large hotels, willing to pay higher prices.
However, Balasaheb Pende, an activist, has initiated a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay high court against the irregularities in the functioning of the APMC.
Pende has noted that the existing APMC committee has completed its five-year tenure and it is allowed to continue by the Congress-NCP coalition government. Pende is a former director of APMC and knows the committee inside-outside.
Experts say there’s a need to appoint honest officials to supervise the functioning of APMC. But with the general elections round the corner, the government is in no mood to clean up the APMC.