‘Last nail in our coffin’: Businesses in Ghazipur’s meat market feel ‘crushed’ by Covid, lockdown

From selling off properties to make ends meet to struggling with expenses, almost every wholesaler and business owner in the fish, poultry and egg market has been affected.

WrittenBy:Muhammad Tahir Shabbir
Shambhavi Thakur

Once the main source for businesses looking to buy meat, the Ghazipur fish and poultry market looks poorly these days.

One of the largest meat markets in the country, located on the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, it includes 88 wholesalers and suppliers of poultry and 252 of fish. Shops stand cheek by jowl and on a typical day, it’s difficult for a customer to find space to stand and talk to a shop owner.

But a combination of the Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has hit this industry hard, with an almost 80 percent reduction in business, according to wholesalers in the market. The loss of business indicates a loss in jobs, especially of low wage workers in the market’s shops.

Abrar Ahmed, the owner of Friend Poultry Market, told Newslaundry that he’s exasperated with mounting problems and a business that’s struggling.

“There are problems everywhere. We used to sell 5,000-6,000 kg [of meat] everyday. Now, it has come down to 2,000-2,500 kg,” he said. “I used to source my stock from Punjab and Haryana in big trucks. Now, I make do with a small truck.”

There are two major reasons for the slump in the meat market’s business. The first is the closing down of hotels and restaurants across the country during the lockdown, and the prohibition of large weddings. About 50 percent of the market’s business stems from hotels, restaurants and weddings.

The second is the wide circulation of rumours on coronavirus. In March and April, there were claims that Covid-19 spreads through the consumption of eggs, chicken, mutton and fish. Although these claims were debunked, wholesalers told Newslaundry that a lot of people stopped eating meat and meat products and over time, business in the market dropped significantly. In some instances, poultry farmers who were terrified of getting infected themselves dumped their old stock.

While the lockdown restrictions have now been relaxed in Delhi, things haven’t improved in the Ghazipur meat market. Some vendors are unsure of getting payments that are pending from small retailers, and others are worried about paying off their creditors. A few have started selling their assets to pay off debts.

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The market comprises 88 wholesalers and suppliers of poultry and 252 of fish.

According to businessmen in the market, the breaking down of supply chains across the country has also hit the government. The market is managed by the Delhi government and monitored by a market committee, which receives one percent of the total sales. The government has reportedly lost almost 60 percent of its monthly revenue from the Ghazipur meat market.

Compounding these woes is Ghazipur’s “mountain of garbage” — a landfill at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. This heap of rubbish is the first thing you’d notice on the way to the meat market, towering nearly 65 metres high. The fish market lies on one side of this mountain and the poultry market on the other. A fruits and vegetables market lies on the other side of the road.

In July 2018, the Supreme Court pulled up Delhi’s lieutenant-general, Anil Baijal, for the garbage mountain, asking for a timeline to clear it. Two years later, things haven’t changed at all.

The ‘egg and chicken’ market

The first thing that hits you when you enter the “egg and chicken gate” of the meat market at midday is the overpowering smell. The area is filthy, crowded with vehicles waiting to transport the poultry and eggs.

To this correspondent, there seemed to be a good number of people at the market. But local shopkeepers said the crowd was just a fraction of the usual number of people at this time of day.

Abrar Ahmed, 50, the owner of Friend Poultry Market, was sitting outside his shop. Abrar is from Trilokpuri, and told Newslaundry that retailers are not coming to buy stock, having run out of money during the lockdown.

“What worries us the most today is losing the payments for our previous orders,” Abrar said. “We’ve been crushed from both ends. No business today, no payment for previous orders.”

Business would usually pick up to a small extent on holidays, he added, but the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent order put a stop to this. The government said that Saturdays and Sundays will have “full lockdown” conditions in the state.

Abrar’s office sits above his shop. Here, Mohammad Shahnawaz, or Channa, told Newslaundry that the situation in the market is “really bad” after the lockdown. Channa is from Bihar and lives in a rented accommodation in Ghaziabad’s Khoda. He works at Abrar’s shop with his brother.

“Earlier there were 10-12 workers here, but now we are only six,” Channa said. “The rest of the workers went back to Bihar.”

Over 90 percent of labourers at the meat market are from Bihar, according to local businessmen. Most of the workers went to their hometowns during the lockdown, and have not returned to Ghazipur. Due to the lack of business, vendors often close up shop at 1 pm.

Newslaundry also visited the office of Ahmed and Co., a shop run by four brothers from Meerut. One of them, also called Mohammad Shahnawaz, said, “Circumstances are really against us. We used to sell about 10,000 kg of stock everyday. Now, we only manage about 2,000, and that too only twice a week.”

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Local businessman said that 90 percent of workers in the market are from Bihar. Most have returned to their hometowns.

He added: “We had 10 people only for cutting the meat. They’re all gone now. There were eight workers for other tasks; that number has come down to two. There’s no work. The electricity bill too is an additional pain.”

Shahnawaz used to source his stock from Rajasthan, Haryana and even Nasik in Maharashtra. Everything was sold wholesale. Today, wholesalers like him are completely dependent on Haryana to source their meat.

“Earlier, the market received 130-150 trucks of stock everyday, which has come down to 25-30 a day,” he explained. “There were about 10,000 workers here; they have been cut to 2,000...We used to get business on Saturdays and Sundays but now that Uttar Pradesh has imposed a lockdown on these days, that opportunity has gone out the window. More of this market geographically falls in Ghaziabad and Noida, so we have to shut down.”

Shahnawaz’s brother Imran Qureshi, 30, chipped in: “People are now illegally unloading the trucks outside the market and selling from there. This is a big loss for us. We pay taxes, get all the certificates, but the people outside do none of that. We are incurring the biggest loss in the scenario.” He added that the government too was losing the one percent they paid for sales. “This is happening because of some corrupt government officials who are cheating both us and the state.”

According to Imran, these “open, illegal” sales take place in areas like Jama Masjid, Sundari Nagari and Kasabpura too. “The market is where all this business is supposed to happen legally, but we aren’t even able to recover the operational costs anymore.”

Some distance away from the main street, Mohammad Suleman, 52, sits at his shop. He’s tallying his accounts books, his hands slathered in sanitizer. Suleman lives in Jama Masjid and inherited the business from his family. He’s been running it now for 25 years.

“Only 20 percent of work remains, that too only local work: the meat that you and I or anyone else in the city is having,” he said. “We depend on five-star hotels for a major portion of our business, and they are yet to begin operations again. It doesn’t seem likely that they will open soon.”

As a result, Suleman said, his shop’s workforce has reduced from 40 employees to 20. “These days, you’ll only find 30 percent of the people when the market opens in the morning. Now, receiving a quarter of the stock we earlier had is a big thing.”

Like many others here, Suleman blamed the government for the worsening situation. “We’re finished after Modi came to power,” he said. “First, we were crippled by demonetisation and GST. But nobody could imagine the coronavirus, which has now come as the last nail in our business’s coffin. The losses are immense.”

Mohammad Suleman, who has run a shop in the market for 25 years.

The fish market

The gate to the fish market lies on the other side of the garbage mountain. A board at its checkpost lists the names of the office bearers of the market committee. The committee’s office is right next to the gate, so Newslaundry decided to pay them a visit.

The committee’s assistant secretary, Devraj, explained the impact of the pandemic on the market.

“The arrival of stock is 40-50 percent of what we received earlier,” Devraj said. “The main suppliers of the market have all run away. The committee used to get Rs 60 lakh a month on average from the market but in June, the amount came down to Rs 22 lakh. The difference is huge.”

What steps are being taken in the Ghazipur meat market given the Covid situation?

“We get the whole market sanitised in the morning. We’ve distributed masks and sanitisers too,” he said. “After the market closes for the day, we sanitise it again before leaving, even if it’s 10 pm. Besides that, any arrival must have a medical certificate. A government doctor PK Bansal visits regularly, as well as a team of doctors for testing. The market has not registered a single case of Covid-19 yet.”

He added: “The committee is cooperating with the shopkeepers in the market in every way possible. Hopefully, the coming days will see an improvement.”

Naseer Alwi, the committee chairman, was not in the office but spoke to this correspondent briefly on the telephone. He agreed that business had taken a hit, but said that once the market opens again, things will “pick up”.

Newslaundry also met three fish wholesalers at the committee office. One of them was Haji Mohammad Ismail, 20, from Ghaziabad, who runs Shop A-85 in the market.

“The lockdown cost us Rs 30 lakh,” he said. “We source our fish from Andhra Pradesh. When the lockdown began, four of our trucks carrying fish got stuck midway. Due to lack of refrigeration, all the fish rotted. That cost everyone a lot of money. A few people tried to move 30-35 trucks into cold storage but that didn’t help either.”

Ismail’s shop employed nine people before the lockdown. “All of them went back home,” he said. “Even after things opened up, business still hovers at 40-45 percent capacity...We are struggling to pay for expenses and electricity bills. It may take us four or five years to recover from this shock.”

Mehboob, 63, who owns MMB Fish Market at Shop A-57 in the market, said he’s been in the wholesale business of fish for 40 years, but has never seen a situation worse than this.

“Only 10 percent of the business remains. According to my calculations a few days ago, the loss is Rs 4.75 lakh,” he said. “I paid all the suppliers so no one can question my image, but we’ve received no payments from the retailers we supplied. We can’t even push them for payment because everyone is struggling these days.”

Before the lockdown, Mehboob supplied fish to far flung places, including Guwahati, Jalpaiguri, Dibrugarh and Siliguri. “Even after ‘unlocking’ has begun, sometimes Uttar Pradesh is closed, other times something else is closed,” he said. “First demonetisation and GST hit us, now this lockdown has finished our business.”

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The market is sanitised every morning. Once it closes for the day, it's sanitised again.

Mehboob managed to pay off whatever he owed to agencies like banks by selling off some land he owned. “I don’t want any tension at my age,” he said. “My children work in the same business too. Nobody is happy.”

At 3 pm, the main market was already quite desolate. Some shops were open, but without customers. A couple of retailers sold fish by the side of the road, under the shade of an umbrella. One of the retailers was Mehfuz Alam, 50, a resident of Rahul Vihar in Ghaziabad, who sells fish on behalf of his employer. Mehfuz earns about Rs 6,000 per month, with perhaps an extra Rs 100-150 per day.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a child,” he told Newslaundry. “I used to sell at Jama Masjid but ever since this market was set up, I’ve been here. There is no work anymore...During the lockdown, our employer took care of all our expenses; that’s why I didn’t leave...The rest of the people have gone back to Bihar.”

Mehfuz’s voice joins a chorus of others from the market: of troubling times and a future of uncertainty. As he said, “Fortunately, I earn enough to get by.”

This piece was originally published in Hindi. It was translated to English by Shardool Katyayan.


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