Mumbai Grahak Panchayat: A model voluntary consumer body

Part I - journey of a consumer cooperative

warehouse of mumbai grahak panchayat sangh
Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, is a non profit co-operative, which is working to protect consumer rights. A volunteer-driven initiative, it has been functioning for decades smoothly. Pic: Shruti Gokarn

There is a flurry of activity in my house. Furniture is rearranged to make space. Glasses of chilled nimbu pani are kept ready, and everyone waits for the familiar brown truck to come to the gate of the building. Things move quickly with its arrival. Men jump out of it and carry huge, blue plastic tubs filled with goods ranging from pulses to stationery to utensils, up to our house. The goods are checked against a list, the lemonade consumed, and the truck and these grocery Santa Clauses have moved on to their next destination.

History of Mumbai Grahak Panchayat

This ritual has played out at our house each month for the past 22 years, barring one month during the pandemic, since my mother, Suvarna Gokarn, became a member of the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat (MGP). MGP is one of Asia’s largest voluntary consumer bodies according to its chairperson, Advocate Shirish Deshpande. 

In 1972-73 there was severe drought and it was very difficult to get essential commodities, recalls my father, Suresh Gokarn. He says Bindumadhav Joshi from Pune thought that the way around this could be a co-operative consumer movement. This resulted in what is today MGP. Initially called Janata Grahak Mahasangh, it was registered under the Public Charitable Trust Act in 1981 and runs on a no-profit, no-loss basis.

Functioning of Mumbai Grahak Panchayat

Shirish has a simple analogy to explain how MGP functions: if one person is going to the market, they can shop for a few more people living near them, and the expenses incurred to reach the market and back can be shared amongst them all. “If we come together and buy it in bulk, then there are advantages and let’s share these advantages. That is the philosophy behind MGP. And there is an element of cooperation,” he elaborates.

This spirit of cooperation has fostered a large body of volunteers, who come from the member families. At present, Mumbai Grahak Panchayat has approximately 27,000 member families. Under the umbrella of MGP, there are smaller groups of members, who live in the same area and very often the same building. These microcosms of the larger parent body are called Grahak Sanghs, with each Sangh having around ten to twenty members. 

The process is straightforward. Every month a list of the goods available for purchase is put up on the MGP website by a certain date. Each member fills out what they want electronically, and submits their list. After everyone pays by a certain date, MGP swings into action to buy the members’ orders. “So, we assess what is our collective procurement for each item. We have a Purchase Committee, which then negotiates in the market, gets the best price, gets the best quality… and then we buy in bulk,” says Shirish.

Pradeep Raorane, manager and purchase officer elaborates that that the Purchase Committee casts its net wide to buy things: toor dal is obtained from Gujarat, chana dal and wheat from Madhya Pradesh, and basmati rice from Amritsar, while some things are bought from the wholesale market in Vashi. Then these things are brought to warehouses at distribution centres in Mumbai, Vasai, Palghar, Thane, Pune, and Raigad, where they are packed in smaller bags and sent to Grahak Sanghs. The collective goods of the members of  a particular Sangh are dropped off at one member’s place, and the others come and collect their orders from there. 


Read more: It is consumer literacy that leads to real progress


Grahak Panchayat’s benefits for members

The joy of buying goods not only at very reasonable rates, but also lower than the MRP (Maximum Retail Price) is an incentive that keeps many members staunchly loyal to Mumbai Grahak Panchayat. For instance, homemaker Shailaja Velankar has been a member of MGP since 1997 without a break, ordering goods from them every month barring the six months when she visited her younger daughter in the US. But even during this time, her elder daughter took up the mantle and kept the tradition going. “There’s no way to ensure the quality of the goods you get elsewhere. But we can be certain that the things we buy from MGP are unadulterated and of good quality,” Shailaja says. She also points that consumers are guaranteed the correct weight of items.

Krutika Ranade, a banker, is a third generation beneficiary of the services provided by MGP. First her grandparents, then her in-laws, and now she and her husband have continued the tradition, despite the convenience of bigger shopping portals like Big Basket, Amazon. “Items are curated according to a well thought out plan. For instance a month before the festival of Sankranti, sesame seeds and jaggery will be featured on the list, the same goes for things used during Diwali,” she explains.

krutika and shubhada ranade
Ranade family is one of the thousands of families that have been depending on the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat for their monthly grocery needs for decades. Pic: Shruti Gokarn

Her mother-in-law, former banker Shubhada Ranade is effusive in her praise for MGP. “Now the bills mention how much you have saved. It makes me so happy to see that.” she says excitedly.

MGP has worked particularly well for her as a working woman, “Things are packed so well and their service is excellent. It really helps working women because we get our daily essentials in one place—once you place the order, you receive it and most of your daily needs are fulfilled.” Moreover, a range of things from blankets to handkerchiefs to cosmetics to power banks finds a place on the monthly list called magnipatrak.

Sunita Rewale, a domestic worker, would initially order in the same list as that of one of her employers. She explains, “I work, earn my money and I can afford to buy things from Grahak Sangh. I liked the things they were offering. So I became a member. I cannot afford to buy things like soaps from the market. But here things are available at cheaper rates.”

Suresh is particularly appreciative of the fact that it saves him a trip to the market and having to lug home things. It also allows him to plan his monthly budget since all the rates are mentioned in the magnipatrak (list of items for the month).

Intangible benefits of MGP 

While the material benefits are obvious, my mother believes that the intangible benefits of MGP are far more valuable. For her, that one day in the month when we receive orders, is filled with anticipation (and then excitement) of meeting other members, chatting with them, and exchanging news. Since she does not step out of the house very often, this is the time when the world comes to her. She enjoys the process of distribution as much as using the things on offer.  

Another practice followed by MGP is recycling. Shirish says certain things like rice, wheat and sugar are packed in cloth bags which are washed and returned by members. These get reused eighteen times, thus reducing plastic packaging. Fuel consumption is also curbed since individual members don’t make trips to the market.

Winds of change 

Mumbai Grahak Panchayat has been facing competition from other shopping portals whose convenience is attractive for millennials and Gen Z. One of the strongest volunteer driven consumer cooperative, MGP is exploring the reasons, market mechanisms and innovative ways to adapt and thrive.

(The second part of this series will explore how MGP plans to handle the competition and what more it needs to do.)

How to become a member of Mumbai Grahak Panchayat?
There are two ways in which one can become a member:
1. Join an existing Grahak Sangh in your locality

Find an existing Sangh close to your residence.
Contact the head of the Sangh (Sangh Pramukh) to find if they are accepting new members
If they are, either the Sangh Pramukh or the person wishing to join can send an email to the effect
Following are the email addresses depending upon the area:
     
Mumbai: membervitaran@gmail.com
Thane: mgpthanevitaran@gmail.com or mgpthanevitaran@hotmail.com
Vasai: mgpvasai@gmail.com
Pune: mgppunevitaran@gmail.com  or punevitaranmgp@gmail.com
Raigad: mgpraigad@gmail.com
Palghar: mgppalghar@gmail.com 
2. Form a new Grahak Sangh with all new members

Gather a minimum of seven members 
Contact one of the six distribution centres depending upon your location
They will provide you with the number of the local volunteer
Attend a meeting conducted by the local volunteer where the process will be explained in detail.
Fill out the form given to you.
Pay a deposit of Rs. 100 per member which will be returned to you should the Sangh shut down
Following are the contact numbers:
Mumbai: 8828311109
Pune: 7030010050/8600130207
Thane: 8779003428
Vasai: 9021822398
Palghar: 8554926494
Raigad: 7066076291
Other details:
Each member has to pay a monthly fee of Rs. 240
Membership of the Sangh has to be renewed every April
New members can join in any month

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About Shruti Gokarn 7 Articles
Shruti Gokarn is a Reporter for Citizen Matters. A former educator turned journalist, she writes on education, handicrafts, food, and travel among other things. Her other interests are crocheting, and reading.