In West Bengal’s biggest fruit market, 15,000 migrant labourers forage for daily bread

Since the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, an eerie silence has descended upon the otherwise bustling market, one of the largest in the city.

Written by SWEETY KUMARI | Kolkata | Updated: November 16, 2016 5:05 am
demonetisation, demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, Kolkata, Mechua fruit market, labourers, food, india news, indian express news The deserted Mechua fruit market in Kolkata on Tuesday. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

On a normal day in Mechua Bazar Phal Mandi, close to 15,000 daily wage labourers, most of them migrants from Bihar, earn their bread and butter loading cartons filled with a myriad variety of fruits onto 150 trucks daily. But since the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, an eerie silence has descended upon the otherwise bustling market, one of the largest in the city. Most of the labourers have not earned a single penny ever since.

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“I used to earn Rs 400-500 daily. Now I make barely Rs 40 a day. It has been like this for almost five days. We have no clue how long we have to suffer,” said Mohammad Zubair, who hails Vaishaligunj in Bihar and has been working in Mechua Bazar for several years.

The wholesale market not only supplies fruit across the state, but also exports to other north-eastern states and Bangladesh. Despite banks being open for exchange of old notes, a shortage of notes has forced cash-strapped citizens to curb their shopping.

At Mohammed Shabir’s tiny house in Mechua, where he lives with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, two Rs 500 notes gather dust in a cupboard but there is not a morsel to eat. A few days ago, he sold two Rs 500 notes for Rs 350 each to send to his elderly parents, who stay in a village in Bihar. “I have been to the bank thrice, but with no ID proof, I couldn’t exchange my money. I can’t sell fruits because even fruit merchants are not accepting them. The market has crashed. I have not earned a single penny in the last five days. How will I feed my family? Despite having ID proof, a few people have offered to buy my notes, but for that I will have to bear a loss. Is this what the government wanted?” asks 29-year-old Shabir, who hails from Navada district in Bihar. Shabir, like many others, was happy to hear that the government had come up with a plan to fight corruption and hoarding of black money, but the uncertainty over when his family will get their next meal has made him question the move.

Most labourers who work at the market have the same story to tell. “I am a migrant from Bihar with no permanent address. Hence I don’t have any ID proof. But does that mean I will have to lose my hard-earned money?” Ratan Ram, another labourer, asked.

Hundreds of porters, vendors and auctioneers are equally worried. Shyamal Shaw, a fruit seller from Khardah in North-24 Parganas, who buys fruits on wholesale from Mechua Bazar and then sells it in Dum Dum and Nager Bazar areas, had to return home empty-handed on Tuesday since the market remained shut for a day. “Daily wage earners like us have been worst hit. My wife, son and I are eating less since we now have zero income and saved money has been reduced to wastepaper,” he said.

A fruit merchant of the market, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “In India, forty per cent of people do cash transactions. Labourers won’t accept cheques. Seventy per cent of the wholesale market runs on cash. Ours is a cash driven economy. You can’t change the entire system in a day or two.”