BENGALURU: On day one of lockdown, supply of fruits and vegetables took a hit, despite the government having marked it out as an “essential service.” Wholesale suppliers from Gaffar Khan Market Association, New Delhi, to Koyambedu Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers Merchant Association, Chennai, say there are multiple logistics issues.
The biggest issue is the closure of state entry points and tolls across India. Some 1.2 crore trucks are said to be stranded across India – in garages, inside cities, and about 30 lakh on highways. Some 50 lakh drivers, cleaners and helpers are getting no food or water as dhabas remain closed for miles along highways, even as essentials rot inside the trucks, said the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) and All India Truck Welfare Association (AITWA)..
There’s also a huge labour shortage, with some 4.5-5 lakh young workers in the unorganised sectors – truck drivers, cleaners, loaders, APMC market workers, odd jobs boys – having left for their hometowns under family fears of coronavirus. The few who are still at their jobs face beatings by the police.
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Given the potential health hazard due to overcrowding at the various Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMCs) yards, many state governments have ordered their closure. Without any new supply chain being created, tonnes of vegetables and fruits in these yards are rotting at various pick-up points.
Vegetable farmers in Punjab have already started dumping produce like peas in farms, unable to transport them, TOI reported earlier.
“Being perishables, there is only a 2-4 day window for sale of many vegetables and fruits. And farmers are now in tears. It’s heartbreaking to have to dump produce on highways,” says C Thanikachalam, a farmer in Theni district, Tamil Nadu.
V R Soundarajan, president, Koyambedu Wholesale Traders Association, Chennai, says every day in Koyambedu, they get about 350 lorries from Karnataka, Andhra, and Kerala supplying fruits and vegetables. “Today only 150 lorries came; everywhere we are hearing stories of lorries being pulled aside by the police or stopped at state entry points. About Rs 1.2 crore flowers from Karnataka were just dumped today on the Bengaluru-Chennai highway. With vegetables, we can’t even quantify the loss,” he says.
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Satinder Singh, general secretary, Gaffar Khan Market Association, said they are aware of the health hazards with large markets. “But the government should then work on alternatives, create control rooms, manage supply chains, ensure delivery of essentials at people’s doorsteps,” he says.
Trucks, drivers stuck
Truck drivers unable to get food and water are being advised to go if possible to local gurdwaras. “In some places, locals are taking pity. But many of the checkpoints (where drivers are stranded) are miles from the nearest village,” says Naveen Kumar, general secretary, AIMTC.
“We have made representations to the road transport ministry to intervene. It’s a humanitarian crisis,” says Kumar.
Bal Malkit Singh, chairman, AIMTC, says there are incompetent officers at entry points. “They are not able to distinguish essential supplies from non-essential supplies. Our trucks are carrying not just fruits and vegetables, but also raw materials for hospital equipment, drugs, masks, gloves, santisiers,” he says.
Abandoning the vehicle carrying consignments worth lakhs of rupees is a risk. “And we can’t blame our drivers. They do need food and water,” says K K Nareda, truck owner, Vrindavan Logistics.
Given the interconnectedness of India’s agricultural supply ecosystem, a problem in Gulbarga in Karnataka is now affecting supply of vegetables at the Mumbai APMC. It started with auctions being cancelled in Gulbarga and then workers fleeing after a 76-year-old died of coronavirus in the district.
Ashok Walunj, Mumbai APMC director, said, “Everybody is scared of the deadly virus. The administration has just agreed to provide stickers to the transporters so that they will not have to face hurdles while entering the city and market yards.”
Adding to Maharashtra’s supply problem is that multiple north Karnataka districts like Raichur, Chitradurga and Bidar have seen market workers and truck drivers going back home under family pressure to stay out of danger. “I have been begging and pleading with my staff to come to work. I spoke to their parents too, telling them their son was just as important as a doctor in India. Everyone is believing WhatsApp forwards and feel their kids are in danger,” says Kumar Biddappa, a wholesale dealer in Bidar.
Ramesh Chandra, general secretary, Bangalore Wholesale Food Grains and Pulses Merchants Association, says, “Many of our workers left for the Holi holidays and then chose not to return. We are hoping the situation will improve by Monday.”