Gauri Devi is squatting right in the middle of a narrow lane slicing through the Posta wholesale market in north Kolkata. She is inspecting a heap of pulses that is laid in front of her like a puzzle. On a regular day, the 70-year-old would have got in the way of coolies gingerly balancing sacks of rice, pulses and spices on their back, but this is not a regular day. These are not regular times.
Ever since Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown on 24th March, traders and wholesalers here and in markets around the country, have had to envisage scenarios that they couldn’t ever imagine.
“After CM (Mamata Banerjee) came and asked us to ensure that there is smooth supply of goods to other markets of Kolkata. She said passes are to those who are regulars at these markets.We are opening the shops in phases. So that people don’t crowd,” says Chandan Chakraborty, working president of Posta Merchant’s association.
Even then, the biggest wholesale market in eastern India and a vital source of grocery items and onions, wore a desolate look on a weekday morning.
“There are no labourers left here. Of the 5000 odd labourers who work exclusively for the Posta market, only about 350 have stayed back. So, even when retailers come, they don’t have labourers to ferry good. Moreover, we have enough stock till the lockdown lasts, after that we will have to figure out what to do ,” says Chakraborty.
In the fifty years that Gauri Devi has spent sweeping the floors of Posta Market, she has never seen anything like this. “There have been floods, yes, but even then people would flock to buy essentials here. But this is something else,” she says, adjusting a flimsy mask on her face.
For the past two weeks, Gauri, a resident of the nearby slum of Alupatty, hasn’t earned a penny. Generally, she earns enough to feed herself by sweeping spillages of goods that are carried by coolies, but now there is nothing to clean.
“Hardly anyone is coming to buy goods. Our sales are down by 75 per cent,” says KK Gupta, who owns a wholesale spice shop at the market.
Posta, which would see retailers from neighbouring states like Assam and Sikkim, among others, hasn’t seen any buyers from neighbouring states.
“How will they come? They have no means to come. Though the CM has ensured that food supply won’t be stopped, many retailers are afraid to come from faraway places. And interstate travelling is not allowed,” says Shibu Das, who owns a wholesale grocery store at the market.
Though there are reassurances of the supply chain being restored, many traders are a bit sceptical.
“There are a whole lot of items that are outsourced from other states. Like pulses and grains, which we get from UP and Gujarat. What will we do when our stock gets over. A rough estimate tells us that we have enough till the lockdown lasts. But if it is extended and the supply from other states don’t come, we don’t know what to do,” says Prabhat Kumar Sarangi, a trader from Posta.
The supply shortage has already taken toll in neighbourhood markets of the city. “We are not facing problems reaching the wholesale market anymore. The problem is they are running out of goods and therefore are increasing price of items. Branded items, like spice powders, atta and oil which come from other states are being sold at premium rates,” says Vijay Sau of Maniktala Bazar Byabsayee Samiti of North Kolkata.
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