Kolkata: Bengalis love their food and they want it as fresh as possible. Festival or not, Kolkatans can be seen thronging markets for their daily dose of fish and vegetables throughout the year.
Even in a lockdown Bengalis want to indulge in their daily habit of marketing and will not be bogged down by ‘unnecessary’ government warnings. To feed this fetish markets across the city have to be kept open. While shoppers can be told to wear masks and stand in orderly queues at a safe distance from each other, for the vendors, by the very nature of the work and the size of markets social distancing is a much harder task. However the authorities and market associations are coming up with different ways to try and decongest the markets as much as possible and decrease the risk of spreading the corona virus.
Talking to eNewsroom, Mrinalkanti Mallick, member of Koley Market Association said that being a wholesale market, it is difficult to maintain social distancing. The produce is in such large volumes that it is impossible for one person to carry it off the trucks and bring it in to the market. However he warned if the market was to close down or scale down its business there would be an acute shortage of vegetables, fish and fruits across the city.
“Private companies in and around the market are mostly closed and are maintaining the protocol but the vendors cannot do social distancing as this is a wholesale market. If this market is closed down then it will not only lead to shortage of essentials, but also thousands of daily wage earners will go hungry. Though government officials are coming on their rounds, they are turning a blind eye to some things as they know that this market feeds essentials to the city and beyond,” said Mallick.
Making an effort
Swapan Burman, vice-chairman and secretary of the organizing committee of Mallickghat flower market in Howrah, however has swung into action after the chief minister’s press meet where she stressed the need to decongest marketplaces.
To start with the area of the flower market has been extended up to Jagannath Ghat. Burman believes this will help in decongestion. “This will help in maintaining social distancing. We are thermal screening visitors before allowing them entry into the market. We have also provided soaps at the gates for people to use before they enter.”
The market committee is not stopping with just these measures. They have restricted the movement of visitors to Asia’s biggest flower market through its gates. “We have kept just two entry points open, in consultation with the OC of Howrah PS. We have also put guard rails on the approach roads to the market, to help regulate movement of customers. We have also started providing masks to the flower farmers along with a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water, so that they do not have to go out for food. We are also repeatedly announcing the need to maintain social distancing. You can understand that we have huge volume of business being the largest market in Asia. The market, which used to be open 24×7, is now doing business from 4am to 3pm. We will gradually limit working hours to 12 noon,” said Burman.
What is helping their cause is the absence of a large section of the traders who come from far-off places. This has resulted in around 70% of the shops being closed.
Maniktala Market, one of the biggest and busiest hubs in the northern part of Kolkata has also started enforcing social distancing. In order to restrict movement of visitors to the market, they have limited business hours. The market is now open till 12 noon after opening its gates at 7am.
Vijay Kumar Shaw, secretary, Maniktala market traders’ association said, “We are insisting on masks for everyone and also enforcing social distancing. People are standing in a queue at designated markings.”
Concerned about the hawkers crowding the footpath outside the market, the association has asked them to maintain social distancing after a joint meeting along with the officers from enforcement agency and Battala PS.
“The shopkeepers are also wearing masks. Many of the fish traders, who are from outside the city area are not present right now, which is helping us in keeping the market less congested. But the grocery stores, numbering around 40, are all open. We are telling customers to maintain distancing from time to time. Our men are regulating the movement of the visitors at all the 9 gates of the market,” said Shaw.
Habits die hard
Esrafil Molla, secretary of Hatibagan Market Association said that the though announcement are made in and around the place, people are still reluctant to listen despite warnings by Shyampukur PS officials.
“The market is open till 1pm. What we have seen is that only a handful of shops are getting overcrowded. We also thought of shutting few gates of the market as we have seven gates but we cannot do so without informing the local administration. People think that the market will run out of stock but it is not true. There is ample stock of grocery. People are not wearing masks and are not listening to our pleas,” said Molla.
Deputy Mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) Atin Ghosh, though assured that proper steps are being taken to ensure security of people.
“I have heard that people were panicking fearing scarcity of raw materials. But gradually people have understood the seriousness of the situation and are maintaining distance. KMC officials along with the cops are visiting every market and dealing with utmost strictness. Things are gradually becoming better and people are becoming more responsible,” mentioned Ghosh.
Gariahat Market has more than 250 shops, one-third of which have now been shifted out to ensure better crowd management. Temporary shops have been shifted out on to the link road adjoining the market.
Dilip Kumar Mondol, secretary of Gariahat Market Association said that though the market was crowded until last week, during the last three days people visiting the market are maintaining protocol.
“Until last week we had a harrowing time trying to make people understand the usefulness of social distancing. Some understood while others didn’t. Last Monday, KMC Mayor Firhad Hakim visited the market and instructed that only two gates should be kept open and that all shops will remain closed except those selling vegetables, fruits, flowers and fish. With this measure, from this week we are maintaining the protocol smoothly and the local residents are also cooperating with us,” said Mondol.
Anisur Molla, a spice vendor said that he has to send money to his mother back in the village but due to the lockdown and government instructions he cannot open his shop and he fears the worst for his mother.
According to Ballygunge resident Saborno Paul, Kasba market has also been relocated on to the main thoroughfare just to enable social distancing as people in large number used to gather inside the market ever since the lockdown was announced by the Centre.