Vishnu has never watched Gangs of New York, the 2002 Martin Scorsese movie. Therefore, it is impossible that he had heard Daniel Day Lewis say with a sense of avuncular pride and deep intensity, “I am 47 years old”. But that is exactly what he says in Hindi when asked his age. “I am very senior,” he speaks in Hindi and English, ‘s’ in senior sounding like ‘ts’, the way some people pronounce Tsar. Tsenior, that is what he said. And then he arrives at a figure: for at least 24 years now, with very few breaks in between, he has woken up at 3.30 am without fail six days in a week and headed for Azadpur mandi (fruit and vegetable market) from RK Puram, earlier in an auto and lately in a ‘tempo’, sort of a generic name in India for a three-wheeler that has extra space for carrying goods. He shares the loud and rickety vehicle with another fruit seller like himself. The driver would wait for the two almost a kilometre away from the market, Asia’s largest wholesale vegetable and fruit market and food lifeline for Delhi and much beyond. The duo would then wade through a maze of agricultural produce and trucks to get their wares for the day, and hire porters to help haul the goods back to the vehicle. They both invariably bought fruits from the same sellers, who have been supplying them fruit for decades. “The sellers may not be sons or close relatives of the owners, but the shops are mostly owned by the same folk,” Vishnu explains.
The porters, too, are mostly familiar people, he notes. “There is hardly any talking in our business in the mandi. We often talk in monosyllables, just telling them how much we want. And the head load workers help us carry them as if on cue. Not much communication is required anywhere because we have been doing the same thing for ages. Everyone knows what we want and how much we pay. There is never any quarrel or haggling. We all know each other. The sellers know how much we can afford,” says Vishnu, who came to Delhi at the age of 14 from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. He still goes back to his village, Sakatpur, once in a while for weddings and other family functions.
“I spend Rs 500 every morning for the porters and the tempo hire,” he says. The tempo ferries him from Azadpur Mandi back to RK Puram where he loads a large basket on his cycle. From there, he goes door-to-door selling the fresh produce. He shares that he typically made a profit of Rs 600 a day until three or four months ago by selling fruits to residents of wealthy neighbourhoods around RK Puram in southwest Delhi.
The lockdown that came into effect from March 24 to fight the spread of the COVID-19 Pandemic has hurt him very badly, he says pensively. And things are now hurtling from crisis to crisis, he affirms. A few traders and agents in the wholesale market, which feeds large parts of northern India, have tested positive for COVID-19 and the labour union in the market has called for a closure of shops in the sprawling market spread over 100 acres for a week starting April 27. What worries Delhi’s authorities is that many people who work in the mandi and health workers live in the residential areas of densely populated Jahangirpuri, Delhi’s biggest COVID hotspot.
The mandi itself is home to more than 2,800 shops, employs thousands of people and attracts many more like Vishnu. According to reports, the supplies of fruit and vegetable supplies will now likely fall sharply by 80-90% in the week ahead because of the likely mandi shutdown. “So, buy in bulk for at least a week,” Vishnu urges his customers. Hundreds of shops in the D-block area of the market are already closed.
His father was also a fruit seller, the first-generation migrant from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi who came to the national capital in search of livelihood after farming became a loss-making effort sometime in the early 1970s. This was shortly after the country was gripped by an economic slump following three wars in less than 10 years, several droughts and myopic political decisions loaded with rhetoric and low in substance. Indians reeling from poverty, especially in rural India, took major life decisions for their families, and soon, migration from the countryside to cities saw a marked rise. Vishnu, who has followed in the footsteps of his father, talks about the latter with enormous respect.
The job scene at that time was bleak even in the cities. With the government monopolizing business in various sectors and making it cumbersome for private players to enter these segments, avenues of job creation were minimal. For someone who was a primary school dropout like his father, there were not many choices. He found a roof for himself and his family in the back alleys of posh South Delhi neighbourhoods of the day. He was ready to pick up any opportunity that came his way. It was then that he chanced upon an opportunity to buy fruit from wholesalers and sell them to whoever offered him a higher price. India had just won a war against Pakistan and helped create Bangladesh, but migrations to cities from far and wide were the norm back then. The economy was tottering and lives of the urban poor mostly on the brink. Writes Arvind Panagariya of the period around then: “The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a reversal of the 1966 liberalization measures and a further tightening of the import controls. The US policy of isolating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi immediately before and after the Bangladesh war in 1971 drove her further toward economic isolationism. By the mid-1970s India’s trade regime had become so repressive that the share of nonoil, non-cereals imports in GDP fell from an already low 7% in 1957–58 to 3% in 1975–76.”
In a paper published by the Reserve Bank of Australia, authors Adam Cagliarini and Mark Baker opined that the low investment share and India’s earlier lacklustre economic performance partly reflected the highly regulated nature of the Indian economy. “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there were strict controls on investment, the public sector had a very large presence in most industries, and private industries were tightly restricted under a licensing regime that limited product differentiation and decisions on investment, output and employment. These policies acted to create a more fragmented manufacturing sector and reduced its competitiveness by restricting the ability of firms to take advantage of increasing returns to scale,” they wrote. This was before market-based reforms were gradually introduced in the 1980s and swiftly in the 1990s.
Vishnu is still one of those who continued to live in poverty amidst plenty. He lives near where his father had come and first found a place to stay: Mohammedpur, RK Puram. Vishnu has three children. The youngest, a boy, studies in class seven in a nearby government school and his daughter in class 12. His oldest son, a college dropout, had managed to land a job which he has lost now due to the lockdown and its associated restrictions to combat the contagion wreaking havoc across the world. Vishnu, who doesn’t want to reveal his surname and insists on only using his first name, says that his wife works as a house help in a kothi (wealthy house) in the neighbourhood.
In his long years as a fruit seller, he doesn’t remember a period when Azadpur mandi was proposed to be shut this long. The mandi, where over 3,000 trucks of fruit and vegetables arrive every day, was set up in 1977 with the aim of facilitating “marketing of fruits and vegetables” and to “implement regulations meant for safeguarding the interests of farmers, producers/sellers and consumers”, according to a government communique. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) maintained the mandi until 1979, following which it was handed over to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC).
“Not only people like me, there are thousands of others from porters to accountants and traders to farmers who are adversely affected because of this lockdown which is unfortunately inevitable,” notes Vishnu. “But the longer the market stays closed the greater the impact on the poor and rich alike,” he says philosophically, shrugging his shoulders, indicating that it is the lifeline of the national capital apart from other places.
A day in Vishnu’s life often ends by mid-afternoon if he is lucky enough to sell the priciest of his fruits. After that, he returns home, rests for a few hours and then sells rest of his wares in the local market. On some days, his wait gets longer when the sales are slow. Most business for roadside fruit-vendors like him comes from impulse buys made by folks returning home from work in the evening or those out for a stroll to the neighbourhood market after work. All these have stopped since the lockdown. “Since late March, my sales have been dismal. It is just hand-to-mouth existence for me now. I don’t blame the government or anyone. They are all doing good things for us. But this disease has caused problems,” he says. “But who could have stopped it,” he wonders.
“I am 47 years old and I have seen a lot in life, but nothing like this one,” he avers. Then he climbs onto the moving bicycle with the skills of a trapeze artist and pedals away.