Navi Mumbai: The sun has not even risen and the APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) market in Navi Mumbai is bustling with activity.
While the traders and buyers, gathered in the thousands, are negotiating vegetable prices, the workers are busy dragging and loading sacks onto the 300-plus trucks lined up on the premises.
But the sight is unsettling amid the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no social distancing, and masks seem to have been rejected as an uncomfortable accessory of not much importance — most people have either chosen to wear them over their chins, or not worn any at all.
Most of the vegetables are lying uncovered on the ground with muck and mud from Monday night’s rain, and saliva from all the spitting by people present there — the spitting again flies in the face of coronavirus prevention advisories and directives, issued in light of findings that the infection spreads through droplets released when a patient or carrier coughs or sneezes.
On occasion, sacks of vegetables are dragged through a fetid public toilet that is currently doubling up as a passage, and whose stench carries as far away as a hundred metres.
As the gates around the premises have been shut as a precautionary measure to avoid overcrowding, the toilet is acting as a short cut for people wanting to cross over to the fruit market from the vegetable section and vice-versa.
This Navi Mumbai market, one of Asia’s biggest for fruits, vegetables, spices and grains, has been identified by local authorities as a “super-spreader” for Covid-19 infection in the city, and one of the main reasons for the case spurt witnessed since June.
As on 1 July, the total Covid-19 cases in Navi Mumbai stood at 6,606, with 211 deaths.
Navi Mumbai is one of the eight Mumbai satellite towns that have seen a sharp spike in coronavirus cases over the past month. The other seven are Mira-Bhayander, Bhiwandi-Nizampur, Ulhasnagar, Kalyan-Dombivli, Panvel, Thane and Vasai-Virar.
According to a senior official in the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC), the APMC mandi continues to be a challenge for the area as it sees a footfall of over 15,000 people on a daily basis, even now.
Many truck drivers come to this market from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and other states to transport vegetables, fruits and grains. The market is also a major source of vegetables for Mumbai and the adjoining satellite towns, including Panvel, Thane, Kalyan and Dombivli.
“The initial spike in the cases in Navi Mumbai was from this market itself. That is because so many people come in contact with each other here,” the official said. “Also, there is no scope of maintaining social distancing in a place like this. Who knows who is carrying the infection, and that is what led to the spread.”
According to the official, the infection first started to spread in the area of Kopar Khairane, where the majority of the APMC workers live, and then spread to colonies where traders reside.
“Then, many traders working in the APMC market fell sick and some even died,” the official said.
“Even now, the market has a footfall of over 15,000 people a day, including buyers from several states and areas of Mumbai, and continues to be a challenge,” the official added.
‘Screening done but not enough’
A second NMMC official said that, as soon as over 30 cases were reported from the APMC mandi, a thorough screening exercise was launched that focused on the market, and suspected cases were tested and isolated.
“To control the situation at the APMC mandi, we carried out screening of over 5,000 people. We also set up booths and identified 50 to 60 people who had symptoms and were positive. They were immediately referred to a medical facility,” the official said.
“Moreover, there are nodal officers in each ward who have been given full powers to take decisions on whatever needs to be done to contain the spread of the virus. The nodal officer in charge of the Turbe area, where the market falls, too, is carrying out regular screening to ensure that no infected person goes untraced,” the official said.
On the ground, however, no such screening has taken place in a long time, traders and workers told ThePrint.
“It was only initially, when some traders and workers here were infected, that the screening exercise was carried out and the entry of people in the market was also restricted,” said Babbanrao Ganpat, a trader. The restrictions, he added, entailed entry permission only for vehicles with special passes. “Details of the vehicles were duly noted down, and all vehicles were sanitised,” he said.
“But now, it has been long since anyone came for any screening,” he added.
“Even earlier, the officials had noted down details of all the traders and workers here, but what about the truck drivers, customers, loaders who come here on a daily basis? Any of them could be a carrier,” he added.
Sanjeev Naik, a former MP who has been working with local NGOs, said screening 5,000 people in a place visited by over 15,000 people daily is not sufficient.
“A place that has so many visitors, how can screening 5,000 people be enough? A strict protocol has to be laid out to curb the spread. And for that, more and more people have to be screened and tested here in this area,” he said.
The first official from the NMMC claimed that rapid antigen testing will now begin in Navi Mumbai, and it will be carried out at the APMC mandi on priority.
“We have 1 lakh test kits and more are coming, so we will start with the rapid antigen test and the APMC area, too, will be covered,” he said.
“Moreover, we are ensuring that the vehicles that enter the market are sanitised with a spray and the urinals are cleaned three to four times a day. We have also appointed nodal officers for each ward and a review is taken regularly,” he said.
The filthy toilet at the market, however, belies the claim, with most people urinating on the floor, and the same unit then used as a passage to carry vegetables.
“The toilet is filthy because it has not been cleaned. They are so smelly that instead of going all the way in, people have started urinating on the floor and the entry gate. I keep telling them to go inside, they do not listen. Also, some of them use this as a passage to drag vegetable sacks and cross over to the fruit market,” a guard in the area said.
“We all know that the vegetables must be getting infected when dragged like this through a urinal that is being used by thousands of people in a day. Everyone, however, seems to have shut their eyes to it,” he added.
Asked about the violations of protocol and precautionary measures at the market, the second NMMC official said the conditions now are “much better than before”.
Demands for market to be shut down
As cases continue to be reported from the APMC market, local residents, even the mayor, have started demanding a shut-down of the market to contain the virus.
The authorities, however, cannot close the market as it deals with products that come under essential services.
Sanjay Pansare, APMC director (fruit), said shutting down the market can never be the solution. “The main reason for the spread is not this market but the retailers who put up vegetable carts in the middle of congested areas, leading to crowding,” he added.
“There are so many areas in Navi Mumbai where these people sell vegetables in an unauthorised manner. Some even put a cloth on the road, spread some vegetables and start selling. This is what leads to the spread,” he said.
Even the traders at the APMC market are against a shutdown.
“We are facing so much trouble as the business has been severely hit due to the lockdown. Only 30 per cent of the market is on. On a usual day, there are thousands of people inside at any given time, with more than 1,000 trucks coming in,” Yogesh Gupta, a vegetable wholesaler, said.
“If they shut even this 30 per cent business, most traders, workers will die of hunger. They have to devise a new way to deal with this problem,” he said.
The shutdown also doesn’t sound like a feasible idea for those who found a lifeline in it amid the shrunken livelihood prospects brought on by the lockdown.
Aminabi is busy sifting through a pile of bitter gourd. She worked as a domestic servant but was laid off during the lockdown. Now she has shifted to the vegetable business.
“I used to make Rs 15,000/month working as a help at several homes but, after the lockdown was announced, most of them stopped calling me. We were told that we will be paid, but only two houses paid me my salary. With no money in the house, I had to look for an alternative,” she said.
“Now I come to the market every morning, take a few sacks of less perishable vegetables worth Rs 2,500 and sell them near my house. This helps me make Rs 200 a day,” she added.
Rajeshwari, a transgender who earlier made a few bucks by performing at badhai (congratulatory) ceremonies, has also shifted to the vegetable business.
“This is the only business that is still going strong because people have to eat. Earlier, I used to go and perform on occasions of childbirth or opening of a shop in my area, but after the lockdown, the income completely stopped,” she said.
“Now, I have shifted to the vegetable business, which makes me earn some money for my survival.”