A vendor sits at a fruit stall at Crawford Market in Mumbai (Representational image)
A vendor sits at a fruit stall at Crawford Market in Mumbai (Representational image) | Photo: Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: As the threat of a coronavirus outbreak looms large, traders in some wholesale fruit and vegetable markets are considering temporary closure due to the presence of banned fruits smuggled from virus-hit China.

Traders in wholesale markets (mandis) at Kolkata and Patna are contemplating the move even other markets across India continue to register a decline in daily auction/sale of vegetables and fruits, and a dip in export of early rabi crops since last week.

In Kolkata’s Mecchua fruit market, traders are contemplating closure of the mandi for at least 15 days from the end of this week.

“Wholesale fruit sellers fear a coronavirus outbreak in Kolkata due to the presence of large quantity of banned Fuji apple from China in the market,” Mukesh Sonkar, a wholesale fruit vendor from Mechhua, told ThePrint over telephone.

India had banned the import of Chinese Fuji apples in 2017 over presence of harmful microorganisms. However, the Chinese variety still gets smuggled into India through states that have porous borders.

“There are at least 5,000-6,000 boxes of these apples kept in the market as of now with a daily inflow of at least 700-800 boxes. We want the government to stop this, else we will have to close the mandi for few weeks,” said Pradeep Kumar, a fruit vendor in Mecchua.

India has so far seen 169 coronavirus cases, with a death toll of three.


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Reluctance among traders

Similar fears persist in the Patna wholesale fruit and vegetable market, where the smuggled Fuji apples are readily available apart from the Chinese dragon fruit.

“Traders in mandi and those around godowns are feeling scared due to boxes of Fuji apple kept in market, which was smuggled from Nepal. People are also reluctant to do business in pears and dragon fruit as they come from China,” said Mohammad Irfan, a trader in the Patna market.

Irfan said Fuji apples used to be their cheapest and most profitable product compared to the Washington and Himachal apples. “But now it’s threatening the very business itself, and even life,” he said.

According to him, the market committees are holding back the closure of markets over considerations of the impact on the livelihood of daily wage workers.

“We can even bear the isolation for a few weeks but the labourers who earn on a day-to-day basis in the markets won’t be able to make it even for a week if we shut our shops.”

He added, “My contractual loader Rajkumar used to make Rs 500-800 a day for loading and unloading sacks. But with the dip in business, he is making just Rs 300 per day now. If we close everything how will he survive with his family of four?”

Difficult to practice social distancing

Market authorities said they are taking all possible precautionary measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s difficult to practice social distancing in wholesale fruit and vegetable markets.

“We are largely relying on disposable gloves, masks and sanitisers along with awareness campaigns to create a safe working environment in markets,” said Adeel Khan, chairman of Azadpur Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) in Delhi.

Khan added that they have put hand sanitisers at all the entry and exit point of mandis along with distribution of gloves and awareness campaign. “But there’s only so much we can do as the business has to continue.”


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Double whammy for traders

Traders across the wholesale markets told ThePrint that it’s a double whammy for them over the last few weeks.

Firstly, there has been a dip in sale/auction of agro produce, which has resulted in many perishable commodities such as fruits and vegetables rotting in the open. Secondly, a majority of food processing industries, retail and online vendors has either stopped or lowered procurement from the markets.

“Majority of my products, which used to go to big retailers like Big Bazaar and Spencer’s in Bombay (Mumbai) have completely stopped now as malls and supermarkets are closing there. Earlier I used to do business worth Rs 20 lakh-25 lakh a week,” said Mechhua’s Mukesh Sonkar.

He said the Mechhua fruit market has about 500 licensed shops, with another 700 seasonal sellers who sell grapes, pomegranates, etc.

“Every seller use to do a business of at least Rs 6-10 lakh daily, which has been reduced to merely Rs 2-4 lakh a day. Damage to our business will not be in lakhs but crores,” he added.


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Dip in early rabi commodities due for export

Among other disturbances in agriculture and horticulture commodities business, traders said they are also facing the brunt of a dip in prices of early rabi items meant for export because of disruption in logistics and shipping chains across the globe.

Narendra Wadhwane, secretary, Lasalgaon APMC, said there has been at least a 40 per cent dip in trade-in auctions for onions and soybean in the mandi.

“Grade ‘A’ onion prices meant for export have declined from Rs 3,500 per quintal to Rs 1,000/quintal over the week as the exporters are already struggling to ship what they have procured earlier from the market. Similarly soybean prices have deflated from Rs 3,500/quintal to Rs 3,355/quintal,” he said.

Wadhwane said the coronavirus outbreak has spelt doom for the market as both onion and soybean business was barely starting to pick up after an excessive rainfall led to the destruction of kharif crop last year. “This was followed by the import ban on onions last September,” he added.

Pranesh Kumar of Mumbai-based Anant Agro Industries, a soybean exporter to the Middle East and China said, “My consignment worth Rs 60 lakh and Rs 25 lakh are stranded at ports of China and Middle East as they are not processing it due to quarantine imposed there.”

“I can’t lift further products from the wholesale market until I get the payment for my previous consignments as the business prospects for export look bleak for the next few months globally,” he added.


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