Round the clock sweeping and disinfection is a new normal in Azadpur Mandi, Asia's largest fruit and vegetable market. But despite implementing such extraordinary hygienic measures, buyers are a bit hesitant in flocking to the crowded market which has recorded over 15 positive cases of Covid-19 and has 14 agencies sealed on its premises.
"Adhering to social distancing, we have restricted the numbers of buyers… but business will go on, this mandi is north India's lifeline," says Adil Ahmed Khan, Chairman of Azadpur's Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC).
In fact, the real battle on ground zero here is about lives and livelihood. "Over 1,000 big trucks, loaded with vegetables and fruits are reaching here every day. If we cease these operations, what will millions of people eat? The question is not about profit and loss, but about feeding the people," Surendra Yadav, an agent trading in vegetables, tells IANS.
"Four trucks of cabbage arrived from Shimla yesterday. But surprisingly two truckloads of cabbage still remain unsold. The buyers are not turning up here in large numbers," says Yadav who is ready to sell a sack of cabbage for as less as Rs 100, almost 50 per cent of its wholesale market value.
It's not only the fear of Covid-19 pandemic, but restrictions on wholesale and retail agents have also brought down the numbers of buyers here.
Usually the movement of trucks and smaller goods carriers at the sprawling market easily crosses the 5,000 mark on any given day. However, to adhere to the norms of social distancing these days, APMC has restricted the numbers of trucks and other transport vehicles of buyers to 3,300.
"Tough measures have to be taken. So now we distribute tokens for each truck or tempo entering into the mandi. We regulate the movement of vehicles on an hourly basis. For example from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., early morning, we allow entry of only 300 trucks. During the next hour, a similar number of trucks are allowed. In between we close the entry for a couple of hours. This token system goes on till late night," says Khan, who remains busy chalking out strategies with officials for effective containment of the virus in one of the most crowded places on the globe.
While buyers think twice in entering Azadpur Mandi, hundreds of truckers carrying fruits from Kashmir or remote places in Himachal Pradesh, brave the pandemic to earn livelihood. More than 30 trucks of apples from Kashmir Valley reached Azadpur on early Thursday morning.
"Because of the lockdown, buyers (from neighboring areas) are unable to reach. Still much of the consignment has been sold out," says Mohammed Islam who deals in Kashmiri apples. The apple agent wears a mask and also keeps a bottle of sanitizer at his table.
The laborers who offload the goods from trucks and later load them into smaller vehicles have been provided masks. The local police and APMC officials inspect each of the shed to ensure that all 2,800 licensed agents follow the stringent norms laid down by the Health Ministry for containment of COVID-19.
In one of the bigger sheds, tonnes of onion, packed in 100 kg sacks, are all stacked up on the floor. Scores of trucks bringing quality onions from Rajasthan, Nashik and other places have flooded the mandi.
"One truck load of onions has been lying with me for the past two days. Though the price remains the same (Rs 400 per quintal), I hope the stock will be cleared if we get buyers in the coming days," says Lallu, who serves as manager for a prominent commission agent.
According to Lallu, a large number of buyers who come from western UP and other places are not turning up.
The spread of the virus in a few shops here has also caused fear among a few.
"Let's hope things will change after May 3," says Lallu who expects that there would be considerable relaxation in the mandi after the second leg of lockdown ends.
Meanwhile the APMC Chairman is holding meetings with the District Magistrate, Civic and Health Ministry officials to organize regular testing of suspects, many of them who could be silent carriers of the virus.
The APMC is also awaiting the report of over 50 people working in the mandi, who were tested for Covid-19 virus.
"I hope things will improve. At this moment I can only assure you that the show will go on…irrespective of the outcome of the test reports," said Khan, whose eyes blinked for a while as he readied to walk into another meeting..