Delhi is the silent hub of the nation’s enormous flower traffic. The flowers moving in and out of Delhi in all directions of the globe are as diverse as the various stages of handling they pass through. However, while roses from Pune decorate coffee tables in a plush German café, the perennial struggle of flower growers, suppliers and distributors never make it to the desktops.

Delhi, Asia’s largest flower market

The space around Coffee Home near Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place in Delhi hosts what is arguably the largest flower market in Asia, with 99 per cent cut flowers and one per cent marigold travelling up from Kolkata. (Cut flowers are typically used as 'vase-decoration' flowers -- gladioli, tulips etc. Marigold and Indian rose petals are used for pooja and other ceremonial purposes). There are two other flower markets in the capital – one at Fatehpuri in Chandni Chowk, which specializes in puja flowers and the other at Mehrauli, where one primarily finds marigold with only 20 per cent of the total flowers being cut flowers.

Delhi flower sales: despite wind, filth and rain

Customers at this wholesale market are almost as diverse as the flowers – ranging from pavement flower sellers to small florists to owners of spanky flower parlours as also individual customers.

Brij Mohan Khanagwal, popularly known as Birju Bhai, is the 'founder' of the Connaught Place flower market and is one of the three 'pradhans' (chiefs) of the All India Cut Flower Grower and Supplier Association. He and his colleagues used to load flowers on bicycles and sell at various florists’ shops until they felt the need of having a permanent place to display and sell the flowers. Thus, after a round of tortuous discussions with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Delhi Government, they got the permission to establish a pavement flower market in front of the Coffee Home at Connaught Place, every morning between four and nine.

Problems abound

Problems surfaced five years ago with the establishment of the market, and their magnitude has not changed much since then. Today, of the total of about 500 flower sellers, a measly 37 hold authorized licenses. But flower trade is not hassle-free. Corruption, preferential treatment and other unfair practices are common. Still, a license is better than not having one. It helps to have one while dealing with air-freight (imports/exports), inter-state transportation and knocking on the government's door.

“The license holders alone pay about three to five lakh rupees to the government in taxes. Yet, the government is neither issuing more licenses, nor providing any support in the form of better infrastructure for better business and enhancing exports. There are plans of setting up markets at the Indian National Army (INA) market, at Okhla and also at Noida with the initiative of the UP government, but we continue to suffer,” says Birju bhai.

Another grey area is the import of flowers. “The government offers us no subsidies, the freight charges are very high and of course transportation remains a big hassle,” says Navin Chand Pandey, former Press Secretary of the Association who sells flowers grown in his farm in Haldwani near Nainital.

But the traders’ biggest problem remains lack of cold storage and display facilities. Not only do traders have to squat in cramped space, there is no parking facility which forces them to leave their vehicles wherever they find space. Moreover, the transportation to and from the train stations and airport remains cumbersome. Flowers are 100 per cent perishable, but traders have no safeguard against extreme Delhi heat and in monsoon the only thing they can do is to put up some temporary plastic shelters to protect flowers.

Whatever they cannot sell during four to nine in the morning, they dump in the cold storages in and around Sabzi Mandi area for Rs.20 per carton per day. Not only are these cold storage facilities confined to one place, the services turn out to be horribly expensive given the volumes the traders deal in.

India's flower business

Delhi may have the maximum ‘flower traffic’ in Asia. The city is the convergence point of dealers in flowers. Traders in most cities have contacts with dealers in Delhi and not with dealers in cities where the flowers actually originate. For instance, flowers from distant Bangalore arrive in Delhi and are then transported to Bhopal. Orchids are imported from Thailand and then exported to Singapore. Despite the growth and sale of flowers having spread over most of the country, India's annual flower production stands at around 1,000 tonnes and the country's floriculture industry has a miniscule 0.01 per cent share in the international market.

Quite a few flower varieties come from Pune and Bangalore - two cities, which boast of the maximum number of greenhouses mainly because of their ideally temperate climes. These include the ubiquitous rose, carnations, and bird of paradise. Lucky bamboos are imported from Thailand, like Orchids. The merry marigold comes from Kolkata. Gladioli converge at Delhi from all over the country, while Bangalore and Thailand again are hometown for lilies. Romantic rajnigandhas originate in Muzaffarnagar while tulips abound in the hills of Shimla and Kullu.

And what does Delhi have to offer, you wonder!

“Delhi has only population and pollution. Yet, flower sellers all over India are dependant on Delhi’s location and networks with other cities and countries for selling their flowers. The problems faced by flower sellers in Delhi are typically faced by those in our business all over India. In fact, growers in remote areas have even more pronounced problems of transportation, packaging and storage as these services are even less developed in rural areas,” offers Praveen Pratap Singh, a wholesaler who sells flowers grown in his farm at Muzaffarnagar.

Flower demand in Delhi itself is seasonal and the market has enormous fluctuations. As Pandey puts it, "Bika to phool nahin to dhool". (If it sells it's a flower, otherwise it is dust). A bunch of gerbera, which sells for Rs. 80 in peak season, costs only Rs. 2 when the season is lean. The (Hindu) marriage season between October and February as also the months of April, May and June are roaring business at the flower market.

International perspective

According to a report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - ‘The world cut flower industry: Trends and prospects’ by Gijsbert van Liemt, China and India dominate in terms of area under cultivation but their yield per hectare is low. “In India and China, purchasing power is too low for sizeable imports to take place and quality is too low for sizeable exports to develop”.

Germany is the typical example of a second group of countries with sizeable markets where imports satisfy most demand (up to 70 per cent). Roses are the main traded product and Germany is the largest import market, followed by the United States. A third group, which includes Columbia and Kenya, have a small home market but a large volume of exports. Lastly, The Netherlands is a member of the group with a large home market combined with a large export share. It is the world's leading exporter.

The developed countries have a competitive advantage in their being close to the market and to quality research and extension services. They have room for innovation and boast of high quality physical infrastructure. However, high labour costs are a competitive disadvantage. Developing countries benefit from low cost of manual labour, but skilled labour and technicians can be expensive. They also have abundant light, good climatic conditions and low land costs. However, airfreight adds significantly to the total cost of exports.

Quality is the catchword as far as exports as concerned. Quality benchmarking of flowers has many aspects. For instance, flowers should be free from plagues and diseases and they should be undamaged – elements, which can be judged on visual inspection. Other quality aspects, however, are more difficult to judge. For instance, it is hard to see whether flowers have been correctly handled once cut. Yet this is an important determinant of vase life and whether or not the bud will open. This is why reputation is so important and why growers who have consistently delivered high quality flowers fetch higher prices than little known or irregular suppliers.

While a majority of Indian flowers blooming in the fields are certainly at par in quality to the ones grown in Europe, the problem begins the moment they're cut and commence their journey to the market. Improper handling after harvest, unavailability of optimum temperature and moisture conditions during storage and transportation, under or over-packaging leading to damage and wiltering are a few factors which have an adverse impact on the quality of Indian flowers reaching the consumer - both domestic and international.

Support from government quarters

The Botanic Garden of the National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, India has made a significant contribution to floriculture in India by standardising the technology for commercial cultivation of ornamental crops. For example, the technology of Gladiolus production has been passed on to 1000 farmers and entrepreneurs under a 'Lab to Land' programme for large-scale cultivation, in order to boost the cut-flower industry in India. The motivation for this initiative has been that since Gladiolus is cultivated in poor rural areas, it can improve the economic condition of the weaker sections of society.

In the last few Five Year Plans, the government has consistently shown some committment towards improving marketing infrastructures for both traditional and commercial cut flowers. Auction houses have been set up in Bangalore, Chandigarh and Trivandrum. Similar auction houses are planned for other parts of the country, while export orientated auction houses have been proposed for Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Auction houses are platforms for growers to sells their flowers directly to wholsale traders aiming at domestic or international market. Growers typically benefit from the competitive prices through the bidding process and traders get to choose from a wide range in terms of both quantity and quality.

India’s geographical assets are just right for flowers. However, policy lacuna and timely implementation of government commitments are holding back exports.
The Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, (Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India) runs an ‘Integrated Development of Commercial Floriculture’ program. It aims to improve production and productivity of traditional as well as cut flowers through availability of quality planting material and transfer technology, improve human resource capabilities for growing flowers scientifically, promote production of off season and quality flowers through protected cultivation, and improve on farm post-harvest handling of flowers.

As for this scheme’s pattern of assistance, specific attention is given to development of traditional flowers; strengthening of Model Floriculture Centres (MFC) for additional facilities; improvement in productivity and production through higher use of inputs and area expansion; assistance for off-season production of flowers; emphasis on on-farm post-harvest management of flowers; encouragement for greenhouse cultivation of flowers; and dissemination of information through training and media support.

A long but promising road ahead

While the traders' typical problems relate to logistics and inadequate infrastructure (storage, packaging, and transportation), government support has focussed on transfer of know-how and production of high-yielding varieties. This is public goods mismatch, somewhat.

But the fact that the flower industry in Delhi alone accounts for business worth over Rs.100 crore annually, speaks volumes about the potential of the industry. India’s geographical assets provide just the right ingredients for flower exports to flourish. However, as with many other potential export industries, there is lack of awareness and timely implementation of commitments – right from the producer to the policy level. Perhaps a national level benchmarking of export-quality flowers should be initiated emphasising post-harvest care, handling, packaging and temperature regulation.

States with good flower harvest should be committed to providing the farmers with financial and technical support for establishing greenhouses, storage and transportation facilities, market information and linkages. Instead of the bulk of the export-flowers leaving the country from Delhi, they should be exported from the closest international airport like Mumbai or Bangalore, thereby reducing travelling time to the consumer. Such initiatives will not only benefit the producer but will also strengthen India’s position on the global floriculture map.

Flower power is waiting to be tapped.