New Delhi: Ghazipur’s vegetable and flower mandi wears a forlorn look these days.
Just a few kilometres from the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal, which was thronged by thousands of migrant workers last weekend, the flower mandi’s business is muted, mirroring to a certain extent the stark collapse in this business seen in other parts of the country.
Close to that, a few labourers roam about aimlessly in the vegetable market. When The Wire visited a few days ago, stacks of onions, potatoes, and vegetables lay unsold in shops.
Since the national lockdown, the functional chain of how agriculture produce moves in India – production, distribution and consumption – has been hurt in many different ways. The three links in the supply chain – farmers and suppliers, arhtiyas (middlemen) who auction these goods, and retailers – have all been hit like never before.
At the consumption and retail level, a large part of it depends on how inter-city movement has been maintained by local law enforcement.
“We used to auction around 200-250 sacks of onions and potatoes (each sack weighs 40 kgs) every day. Since the national lockdown, we haven’t been able to sell more than 20-30,” said Vikash, a middleman in the mandi on March 28.
The reason, he said, was that there was no demand in the market. “There are very few vegetable vendors now. Most of the big ones, our biggest buyers, have not opened their shops since the national lockdown was enforced. Only a few small vendors are selling these days,” he said, looking towards hundreds of unsold sacks in his shop.
Vikash said that he used to make anywhere between Rs 2,000-3,000 every day out of the commission he got for auctioning the produce. But, four days into the lockdown, he said, “I will be lucky if I make even Rs 200 tomorrow.”
He said the prices of onions and potatoes have not crashed – consumers have been gravitating to non-perishable items in the past week, thus counteracting problems caused by transport – and are selling for around the same price as before the lockdown. However, he said that if the trend continues, the suppliers will be forced to sell at a lower price.
Delhi’s wholesale vegetables markets generally come alive at midnight and in the early hours of the morning. Farmers and suppliers come in trucks to sell their goods. The Delhi government-run Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) keeps a tab on the number of trucks that come, and collect taxes accordingly.
The arhtiyas then auction the produce to the buyers.
“Trucks start coming in at around 11 pm. By 2 am, everything is generally sold off. But in the past four days, the number of trucks coming in and the buyers have reduced by almost 70%,” Vikash said.
There are two reasons, according to Vikash, for why trucks carrying onions, potatoes and fruits haven’t come.
“Firstly, most trucks are being stopped at various borders. They come from as far as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The police have been really strict about their movement. Secondly, what is the point of transporting goods when they can’t even sell it properly? There is hardly any demand,” said Ravi, another middleman who operates from Ghazipur.
The market for perishable vegetables and fruits at Ghazipur presented an even more distressing picture. The Wire observed shops full of unsold vegetable sacks, waiting to rot.
“Farmers brought their produce to sell it. Now when they can’t sell, they have left it here to rot,” said Vicky Saini, an arhtiya. “It makes sense,” he said. Ever since the lockdown came into force, the transport costs have almost doubled.
“A small truck used to charge around Rs 1,000 to transport vegetables from Bulandshahr to the mandi. Now it charges around Rs 2,500,” said Vicky.
The situation appears to be similar to what Delhi’s biggest vegetable market initially went through, the Azadpur mandi, where reports said that trucks of green vegetables sat rotting during the first few days of the lockdown. At one point, Asia’s largest mandi for fruits and vegetables was able to execute just 25% of its capacity. More recent reports however indicate that it has slowly come back to normalcy since then.
At Ghazipur mandi, complaints are aplenty of how police and other law enforcement are restricting trade.
A truck owner that The Wire spoke to said that policemen at the Uttar Pradesh and Haryana border do not let them in if they don’t cough up bribes. “The policemen stopped us at the UP border and told us that if we do not pay Rs 1,000, I will not be allowed into Delhi. I have no option but to pass that cost to the farmer,” said Pappu, the truck owner.
A farmer has been left with no choice but to dump his vegetables at the market, hoping the arhtiya could sell it in the coming days before it completely rots.
“One farmer from Hapur, UP, stayed here for two days, hoping his produce would sell. He slept in our shop. However, he had to leave without any money. I told him that I will get the money transferred to his bank account, if we manage to sell it. This is his produce,” said Saini, as he pointed towards a pile of unsold vegetables.
At another corner, Pradeep Lal, a farmer from Sonepat, had decided he would sell his own spinach produce at the retail market that sits just outside the vegetable mandi. “I was selling spinach for anywhere between Rs 15-20 a week ago. I am now ready to give it for Rs 5 per kg, despite the fact that I have already spent Rs 6 per kg in growing it and transporting it here. It is better to sell it off here than to take a complete beating,” said Lal.
“Jo Bikta hai bikey, jo nahin bikta hai toh gau mata yehin hai. Yehi hai hamara Bharat desh (What I can sell, I will, or else I will feed everything to cows around here. This is the true picture of India)”, said Lal.
A little down the road, a few vegetable vendors had laid out a retail shop to sell their almost rotting fruits at extremely low prices. “You can take this pineapple for only Rs 20. I am also selling mangoes for Rs 25,” one vendor told us.
In many other states across the country, fruit farmers appear to have faced the brunt of the lockdown. Reports from Vzahakulam in Muvattapuzha (Kerala), which is home to Asia’s largest market for pineapples, is in a particularly stressful state.
“Our major export centre was North India. With closed borders and police restricting loaded trucks, business is almost nil. This largely affects farmers who’ve taken huge loans,” said Thomas Varghese, president, Vazhakulam Merchants’ Association.
The prices of vegetables have crashed in Ghazipur mandi, although its unclear how this trend is playing out across the rest of the country.
“Cauliflower was selling for Rs 20 a kg. Now, it is going for Rs 3. The price of gourds has also dropped from Rs 20 to Rs 3. I just hope I can sell at least half my produce, so I will be able to make some money back,” a vegetable farmer who had come all the way from Amroha in UP said.
For their part, the arhtiyas are predicting a complete collapse of the market in the days to come. “Farmers will stop spending on transport now and will try to sell as much as they can in their districts. Even if they don’t find buyers in their villages, they will save money on transport,” said Vicky Saini, an arhitya whose income has crashed.
In the face of the crisis, the daily wage earners and coolies who worked in the mandi have left to their villages, while some are looking to leave. “It will be impossible for us to work. We depend on our daily income. We used to make around Rs 300 everyday, but for the past four days, we haven’t made even Rs 50. How will we survive here?” asked Bunty, who wanted to go back to his village in Bihar.
“I can’t even ask my maalik (employer) for any money. He is arranging some food for us now but even he is facing severe losses. I know it,” he added.
APMC officials at the mandi agreed that businesses have been severely hit, and estimated at least a 30% loss to the market. “Anywhere between 1,800-2,000 small and big trucks used to come here on a daily basis. Now only 1,000-1,200 come,” Ghazipur APMC official Laxmi Chand told The Wire.
“The number of buyers has dropped by almost 70%. If this trend continues, the market will take a severe beating in the coming days,” he added.
There is great uncertainty in the market as of now. Most people at the mandi expect that the lockdown may continue beyond April 15, and in that case, they hope the government will support them by procuring the produce directly. [The Centre has said as of now, there are no plans to extend the lockdown beyond the 21-day period]
“Most of us were prepared for losses until March 31 (the day when the Delhi government’s curfew was supposed to end). If the lockdown is extended, we will be completely ruined. We are hoping that the government intervenes to stabilise the markets somehow,” said Satish Gupta, a middleman who auctions onions at the mandi.