Chennai has its own version of the tomato market.
It has been around for almost 100 years.
And with a population of about 8 crore, the market is the city’s largest in the country.
In a city of 1.7 million, the price of a tomato is Rs 1,600 and it is quite a big market, says V Sarma, a resident of Kothur, the town near where the market used to be.
So if you want to get a fresh tomato, you need to walk for hours.
“There are no more stalls and there is a huge population of tomatoes.
If you buy one, you can expect it to sell for a few days.
If it is good, it will be good for a couple of months,” he says.
But with a recent crackdown on the sale of tomatoes, the marketplace has been shut down and it has become a place for traders and shopkeepers to meet for a better price.
“A lot of people are making money here.
It is a lot of fun.
But people have to take care.
If they sell their tomatoes at below market price, they get penalised.
If a vendor is selling at Rs 3,000, he gets a penalty of Rs 4,000.
There is a good chance he won’t make much money,” says Vinod Bhat, a local trader.
He sells tomatoes in his shop, which has become the centre of the market.
“I was here before and I was there when I was a student.
There are some shops that sell at Rs 1 lakh, but the rest are selling at about Rs 1.5 lakh,” he explains.
“Some shops have only 50 to 60 tomatoes and others have 30 to 40.
If the prices stay at Rs 2,000-3,000 per tomato, we lose a lot.
We lose more than a day’s profit,” he adds.
“We sell in small batches because the vendors don’t want to be involved in large scale transactions.
The shops are not profitable at all.
Even with a few vendors, we are losing money,” he concludes.
So, what can a buyer expect from a tomato market?
In most markets, there are no barriers to entry.
“In a city like Chennai, you have to be at least 21 years old to buy a tomato.
You have to have a valid ID and you have had a licence from the local authority.
You can also get an ID card and proof of address.
If your ID card says you are from Karnataka, you cannot enter the market,” says Bhat.
He adds that there are restrictions for traders as well.
“You cannot bring in your own tomatoes.
We don’t have any freezers here, only a container that you can put tomatoes in,” he tells.
So when you buy a fresh, you are likely to pay a premium.
“Buyers come in small groups.
Some are selling to people who have no business here and others are buying from friends who are selling for big money,” explains Ravi Rajendran, a trader at his shop.
Ravi, who sells tomatoes at Rs 30 to Rs 40 per kilo, adds that he doesn’t expect much in return for his business.
“When I buy a kilo of tomatoes from one seller, I get Rs 2 lakh, which is my profit.
But if someone sells 20 to 30 kilos, I will get less,” he admits.
So what can you expect from the vendors in a tomato-centric market?
The market is crowded with traders selling tomatoes in small quantities.
“They are all in their 20s and 30s.
They don’t sell a lot, so I don’t think they are doing very well,” says Rajendra.
And if you ask people in the market for a price, there is no guarantee of a profit.
“The market is very crowded.
There can be one seller selling 10 kilos and another selling 30 kilo.
But a price is not a guarantee.
Some sellers have a reputation for being able to sell a certain quantity,” says Ravi.
So why should you go to a tomato stall in a city where the tomato is such a prized commodity?
The tomato market is a place where people can meet for the freshest fresh tomatoes.
And it is a perfect opportunity to meet up with your friends or even buy a bottle of wine.
“Most of the traders have gone to the market to meet friends and have made friends here.
They meet people for a drink at a tea stall, or for a meal.
There have been occasions where a customer has paid Rs 1-2 lakh for a bottle or a meal at the market, he adds, but it depends on the individual.
Some of them are selling a bottle for Rs 5,000 or a dinner for Rs 15,000,” he reveals.
“Even if you are willing to pay money for a good product, you might not be willing to sell it if