Despite the lockdown, Adeel Ahmad Khan, chairman of the Azadpur Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) mandi in Delhi had no option but to keep India’s largest fruit and vegetable market up and running. Spread across 83 acres, with 3,000 registered wholesalers and 20,000 labourers, in normal times, this market sees daily footfall of more than 100,000 people, with daily trading of fruit and vegetables in the region of 12,000-14,000 tonnes. It also oversees the work of the vegetable and fruit market in Okhla, a major supplier of Delhi’s daily essentials. Aside from supplying the needs of the National Capital Region, the Azadpur mandi is also a central hub in the supply of fruits and vegetables to all of north India. A forced closure would have meant catastrophic damage to the food network for a significant part of the country.
Nonetheless, keeping the mandi up and running is a major task, especially in the face of the pandemic. Between April 20 and May 1, 17 people working here tested positive for COVID-19. About 15 shops were sealed and more than 50 people were quarantined. “It was a difficult decision (to keep the market open),” says Khan. “But when we consulted traders and other associations, they pointed out that maintaining the supply of essentials during the nationwide lockdown is national service.” A measure of the mandi’s importance is how people reacted to the mere possibility that it would close. “Even the rumours of the market shutting down led to panic buying and escalation of prices,” says Khan. “We used social media to quell rumours and maintain fair prices,” he adds, admitting that prices still rose because of supply issues as a result of transport bottlenecks and the difficulty farmers from adjoining states faced in bringing their produce here.
Many farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh decided to sell their produce in nearby markets rather than at Azadpur, either because they couldn’t arrange transport or didn’t want to take the risk. From the normal 12,000-14,000 tonnes, trading volumes came down to 7,000-8,000 tonnes. “The demand also dipped as long-distance transport is still not available. Produce cannot be sent to Kolkata, UP, Patna etc. Exporters are shut, and so are big consumers like restaurants, hotels and hostels,” says Khan.
To keep the market open, he says that a decision was taken to limit movement. The plan involved asking farmers to bring their produce between 10 pm and 6 am, and limiting the number of buyers by issuing tokens for permitted vehicles, stopping retail purchases, as well as implementing a strict policy requiring everyone to wear face masks. While several APMC members believe that trading could have been shifted elsewhere, Khan’s efforts kept this essential supply hub up and running.