A cooperative store established way back in 1962, ‘Dakhin Sarania Grahak Samabai Bhandar Limited’ popularly known as ‘SAHAJOGI’ is still in business. The store has remained loyal to their initial motto ‘No Profit, No Loss’ and serves the area of Sarania in Ulubari. It is one of the first cooperative stores in Guwahati and catered to a large population of the city until the 80s. It believes in the goal of cooperative societies with an aim of being an independent association having common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
Bhabendra Narayan Rai Choudhury, Madhab Ram Bora, Pratap Choudhury, and Damodar Mahanta from the Sarania area were the key establishers of SAHAJOGI amongst many others. ‘These few people took the initial steps for the sake of bringing about a social change in this area back then. Sadly, Pratap Choudhury is the only founder still alive,’ said the caretaker R Talukdar.
Bireswar Kalita, accountant of the store shared, ‘Sale has decreased considerably in the last two decades. We don’t have as many customers as we had in the 60s and 70s. Subsequently, the profit margin of our centre has also gone down. Earlier, we had 20 employees which was reduced to 13 and presently we have only nine employees. Only this much is possible with the little profit we make.’
The building which was constructed in 1980, solely for the purpose of the cooperative store has provided some of its space on rent to meet the present financial needs. ‘We somehow manage to give salary to the employees with the rent that we get. A tailoring shop has also been established in the building at a minimal rent to the society.’
However, the newly formed board of the cooperative store is planning to expand the business by introducing modern advertising and marketing in order to scale up their sale and to be able to compete with contemporary retail outlets.
Regarding the government’s involvement, secretary Apurba Kumar Deka said, ‘We are backed by the State Government’s Cooperative Directorate when necessary. The goods we bring come at subsidized rates and are devoid of tax in some categories. Initially, our supplies used to come from Gujarat and West Bengal. But as sale decreased, we had to narrow down our supply chain and now we bring them from Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati, from various wholesalers.’
Talukdar, one of the oldest caretakers of the centre, stated, ‘The sale of our store was very high on the occasion of Puja and Bihu back in the 90s. But customers today look for more options hence they choose to go to shopping complexes as we are not being able to provide the variety that customers look for. Nowadays, people come to us only in the case of acquiring ration cards, that too rarely.’
The store deals mostly in clothes, stationeries and grocery items. ‘We stock and sell items depending on the demand of the customers. People rarely come to shop here,’ one of the saleswoman pointed out.
Deka mentioned that people nowadays are not very concerned about their localities as was the trend back in the 70s and 80s. ‘Co-operative societies need people who put in extra effort towards the society as co-operatives work towards a common social goal. How can cooperative societies function suitably otherwise?’
The 60-year-old cooperative store has a system of providing subsidy to its shareholders yearly which was first started by this store in Guwahati city, according to Deka. It was formulated to attract more customers. He mentioned that many shareholders of the store have passed away. ‘Even after informing their relatives to transfer the shares, no one has turned up, which shows the attitude of the people towards the Bhandar.’
A Call for Change
‘People come only for the ration cards as it is an important document but not for groceries. We do sell groceries at a lower cost than other private retail outlets but the discounts still don’t appeal to the customers. However it cannot be denied that we are lacking in providing better services. We have to think of new plans to attract customers,’ revealed Deka.
The other employees also agreed that the store needs some up-gradation to keep in pace with the competitive market. Deka expressed ‘We are planning to restructure our Bhandar. Soon the committee will come out with a proposal to modernize the cooperative store and we will approach the government to grant the changes required.’ He also pointed out that the infrastructure of the Bhandar is a drawback. The building lacks parking space which is major concern for customers. ‘We are nowhere close to contemporary shopping complexes. But we are striving towards an up-gradation and giving it a new shape all together.’ The Chairman has also suggested bringing in the young generation equipped with the business know-how to expand the trade with the help of modern business techniques.
According to the data of The Registrar of Cooperative Societies Assam, there are 9455 cooperative societies in Assam ranging from banks, and mills, to multipurpose societies. But the position of most cooperatives seem to be the same throughout the State. Restructuring and up-gradation may just be the answer to reviving these old establishments.
By Manjum Mahanta
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast July 2018 issue