Mukeshwar Yadav, one of the hundreds of labourers who form the backbone of the daily operations in Azadpur Mandi, Asia’s largest wholesale market of vegetables and fruits, hasn’t seen his employer since the countrywide lockdown began on March 25.
Hailing from Bihar’s Darbhanga district, he has been living away from home for 10 years, but never felt so lonely. Sitting atop sacks of onions, covering his face with a cotton towel “to keep coronavirus at bay”, Yadav says the government has “left people like him to die and rot here”.
“I have lived my last 10 years among these onion sacks. It did not feel haunting earlier, but now it does,” he said, swatting a fly with his towel.
Yadav, who used to earn around ₹8,000 a month, has been living on the money he saved before the lockdown as income has dwindled with work drying up. “We have got vegetables here, but there is no rice, flour or oil… No one has come forward to help us,” he laments.
Across the street, three shops have been sealed by the administration after coronavirus cases were detected there.
Between April 20 and 29, as many as 15 people in the mandi have been diagnosed with COVID-19, turning it into a hotspot. Earlier this month, a trader in the market died of the respiratory infection, spreading panic among the labourers.
According to Azadpur Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) chairman Adil Ahmed Khan, 13 shops have so far been sealed and 43 people placed in quarantine.
As per a report in India Today, health officials opine that there are chances of many more cases of coronavirus erupting in the market.
Officials say that these people were not directly connected to the market and contact tracing is in progress since this comes at a time when the number of cases of Koreans in Mandi are also increasing the concerns of businessmen.
However, despite growing number of cases, the show goes on in Azadpur Mandi but the real batle on ground zero still remains between life and livelihood.
Surendra Yadav, 34, from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, says there has been very little work since the lockdown began. His earning has come down from₹300-400 daily to ₹50 now. “Sometimes, even Rs 50 is hard to come by. Today seems to be one such day… nothing so far.”
Most of the porters have been living on their savings, he said and fears what if the savings get exhausted before the restrictions are eased.
Surendra is surprised when told that the Delhi government is distributing free ration to migrant workers, the needy, elderly and homeless people.
“No one has offered us help. We are on our own. Our employers have remained absent and no help has come from them,” he said, rebutting all claims of aid by the marketing committee.
“Over 1,000 big trucks, loaded with vegetables and fruits are reaching here everyday. If we cease these operations, what will millions of people eat? The question is not about profit and loss, but about feeding the people,” Surendra, told IANS.
“Four trucks of cabbage, arrived from Shimla yesterday. But surprisingly two truckloads of cabbage still remain unsold. The buyers are not turning up here in large numbers,” says Yadav, ready to sell a sack for ₹100, almost 50 per cent of its wholesale market value.
Like hundreds of migrant labourers, these porters are stuck in the national capital amid this coronavirus-induced lockdown. With income drying up, they are desperate to return home.
“I tried to go home but didn’t get a ride, nor there was any bus for Bihar from Anand Vihar,” Mukeshwar Yadav said, criticising the Nitish Kumar government for not taking care of its people like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Another porter, 40-year-old Anil Raj, interjects, “The UP government operated special buses to bring back their people stuck in Delhi and other states, Nitish babu is not so benevolent.”
Raj, who is also from Darbhanga, doesn’t know the name of the disease or the virus. “I just know that you don’t get an inkling of the disease by the time you know it, you are dead.”
Raj’s employer too hasn’t been to the market for over 20 days. Asked if his employer has been quarantined, he stared blankly for a while and said he doesn’t know what that means.
Another porter, Madan (35) from Patna says his landlord in nearby Bharola area forced him out earlier this month because he could not pay the rent. Since then, he has been living in the mandi “among the mosquitoes”, surviving on khichdi twice a day.
Asked about his family in Bihar, he says, “I don’t know what will become of us if I contract the disease. My kids, my wife and parents are waiting for me. I want to be with them when I die. I don’t want to die alone.”
On Sunday (April 27), guidelines were issued to regulate the movement of empty vehicles in the area to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee said a DDA ground in Burari has been earmarked as holding area for empty vehicles to reduce the traffic in and around the market where all empty vehicles will go and take a token before coming to the mandi for loading.
The entry of vehicles in the mandi will be strictly on the basis of the time mentioned in the token. A total of 3,300 tokens will be issued from 5 am to 9 pm every day on first-come-first-serve basis.
“Three-hundred tokens will be issued for the first slot 5 am to 9 am. After that, 200 tokens will be issued every hour till 9 pm,” the committee said. The committee said a penalty of ₹5,000 will be imposed on a trader or driver if a loaded or empty vehicle stays in the mandi for more than six hours.
(With inputs from agencies)