“Increased internet penetration, improved security measures, convenience of shopping in lives pressed for time, and, of course, dozens of retailers to choose from” are some of the factors which, according to the Government of India’s e-Commerce Report, have given fillip to e-retailng. Another factor that seems to have been overlooked is the convenience that e-retailing offers to seniors like us who are unable to walk around markets from shop to shop for buying their essential requirements. As being advertised over the television, as many as 10 crore (billion) items are on offer for consumers to choose from. And, they belong to whole range of commodities, from essentials to items of luxury. In fact, one is spoilt for choice.
The latest to hit the e- market is an item which many would find odd but it is essential for some households. Cow-dung cakes are what are being sold through e-retailing sites. With progressive urbanization, shifting of cattle from urban centres, increasing availability of liquid petroleum gas and upswing in household incomes cow-dung cakes made the disappearing act. They are just not to be seen anywhere in urban areas whereas earlier they used to be ubiquitous, especially in small towns, district towns or even in some major towns. In metros they were hidden from public view but they were certainly there as these were the sources of energy for poor people.
It seems, gone are those days when one would find children picking up cow-dung, carry it home for the women of the house to make cakes out of them. The walls of the houses in settlements of poor would be plastered with them. The idea was to dry them up to make them little more solid. Mixed with clay cow-dung was also used for refurbish floors and walls.
I remember my mother buying cow-dung cakes off a hawker. A woman used to hawk them around loading cow-dung cakes in jute bags on a donkey. The donkey would be barely able to move with the heavy load of these cakes-full of sacks hanging down his flanks. The cakes used to cost around Rs. 5.00 for a hundred and about twenty of them would be given away as bonus. Used for lighting up the coal-fired (soft coke) ovens or for igniting the wooden logs in the earthen chulha (Indian clay oven) these were, therefore, essential items for at least middle class or poor households. The only hydrocarbon for use as source of energy used to be kerosene which was too messy as also smelly. Without the cow-dung cakes cooking would seem to have been impossibility. Of course, the women of the household would take in the smoke that used to be raised rather copiously by the cow-dung cakes and burning soft coke or logs of wood.
Drastic changes have been wrought during the last half a century or so. Formerly what were traditional sources of energy have since been discarded and today, generally, it is liquefied petroleum gas or liquefied natural gas or electricity that have become sources of energy for almost all the people. And, yet there is demand for cow-dung cakes. Since retailing them from shops or through hawkers has been discontinued, suppliers, sniffing rising demands in urban centres, have taken recourse to e-tailing the stuff.
Traders say the demand is picking up in cities. Even representatives of Amazon say that demands are mostly from metro cities. Here cattle are scarce and mostly it is the dairies on the outskirts which deal in this precious commodity. Used also for religious purposes, cow-dung cakes are an essential component of articles required for Hindu ‘puja’ (worship). In the southern provinces where affluence has been witnessed after economic liberalization the demand is particularly high and it is reported to be building up. In any case, according to Hindu Ayurveda, burning of cow-dung cakes with a bit of camphor has always been reckoned as air purifier. Perhaps, people up north in Delhi should not try it as they have already enough of smoke and particulates in their air.
The scarcity of cow dung is somewhat surprising. Once Late Mahesh Buch happened to mention that he was unable to procure cow dung for his organic farm. Apparently, it has become a big business, more so with the onset of organic food culture. Once, again, cow’s excreta are an essential component of organic manure. With the rise in awareness of the harmful after-effects of chemical farming the consumption of organic food has taken a big leap. Even the new fad of natural food is also stoking demand for this commodity. Whether in kitchen gardens or farms owned by restaurants in big cities, cow-dung cakes are in big demand. And, that is where the online portals come in to fill in the gap created by the absence of former retailers.
Sensing big time profits businessmen organizations have, as is their wont, started profiteering. The prices of cow-dung, seemingly, are leaping up to touch the skies. Already there are cries for monitoring and for price control. Self-restraint, an attribute that should be essential among businessmen is something unfortunately alien to them. Online cow-dung cakes, or patties as they are called, are being hawked around at exorbitant prices. On eBay 35 cow-dung cakes are available for Rs. 325/-. Another site on Amazon offers 9 cakes for Rs. 999/-, Rs 100/- a piece. People in the trade admit that e-retailers hike the prices to uncomfortable levels for the customers. While the price of five or six cow-dung cakes actually is around Rs. 20/-, e-retailers offer them for Rs. 1000/-. Perhaps, the business with great potential is being killed in its infancy. Perhaps that is the price one has to pay for the change that has come over the country.