KOLKATA: Prices of vegetables, fish and poultry have mirrored the surge in panic among customers, similar to how the Sensex has reacted to PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Janata Curfew’ and then three-week-long lockdown.
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The city witnessed the first bout of frenzied buying on Friday and Saturday following Modi’s address to the nation on Thursday, in which he urged citizens to observe a curfew on Sunday. Prices of vegetables, fish and egg spiked as demand soared. Some who were aware of the Covid-19 threat looming over India and long-term restrictions in China, South Korea and elsewhere sensed Sunday’s “janata curfew” was just a rehearsal of the inevitable lockdown ahead and stocked up. The rise in demand pushed up prices considerably.
The prices had begun to ease on Saturday evening when two announcements on Sunday, one by the Centre on restrictions in 82 districts in the country, including Kolkata, till March 31, and CM Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that the state would enforce the curbs till March 27 and review it before a subsequent decision, saw anxiety among large sections of people, leading to a spectacular rise in prices on Monday morning. Vegetable prices soared by 100%-150%. Fish and egg prices increased by 50% while the hike in chicken price was slightly lower.
The following morning though, the markets opened as usual and though grocery stocks had depleted, vegetable, fish and chicken vendors were present with the usual stock and there was no indication that a crisis lay ahead. With prices declining by 35%-40%, some even regretted making bulk purchase at high prices the previous day.
But the uneasy calm lasted only a few hours. When Modi announced a more strict lockdown for three weeks, all hell broke lose as people rushed to the nearest market to stock up. In the few hours left to the lockdown, grocery shops were nearly emptied out. But since the announcement came past the hour when perishables like veggies and fish are sold, it was on Wednesday morning that the markets went on fire.
Some vegetables like lemon and bottle gourd could not even reach most markets due to restrictions. Whatever else was on offer, was sold at a premium. “There was a mad rush as early as 5am and people started buying everything in huge quantities. No one purchased less than 5kg of potato. Some even wanted to buy a sack (50kg). But we decided to ration it and fixed the upper limit at 5kg,” said Sujit Ghosh, a potato retailer at Behala market.
Similar rationing was done by retailers of onion and eggs at Gariahat, Kasba, Lake, Bhowanipore and Maniktala. In several places, the rationing happened after a bit of police advice. In Howrah, the city police notified markets would operate from 5am to 9am to maintain maximum possible social distancing.
Despite the steep rates, stocks of most vendors were exhausted by 9am. Many shops marked out how customers should stand with gaps between them to adhere to social distancing norms. Big retail chains regulated the entry of buyers.
West Bengal Vendors’ Association president Kamal Dey said retailers had sensed the panic among buyers before they had even started business with many receiving frantic calls from regular customers inquiring when they would reach the market. “The 21-day nationwide lockdown announcement had clearly spooked them though the PM had clearly mentioned that essential commodities were exempt,” said Dey.
“The mad rush defies logic. I heard people jostled to buy things. I am once again assuring everyone that there is no reason to panic. There is enough stock of foodgrain and pulses to feed the entire population of the state for the next few months,” said food and civil supplies minister Jyotipriya Mallick. He expects the market to cool down after the CM addressed the issue and assured people of smooth supply. “Those who bought vegetables more than their requirement at a premium will regret when the price starts going down from Thursday,” said Jyoti Guha, secretary, south suburban vendors association.
And though price of fish did not jump as much as vegetables, they got emptied out real fast. Ironically, chicken and egg whose prices had crashed following fake messages that claimed one could acquire the dreaded virus by consuming poultry products witnessed the sharpest rise when the lockdown was announced to break the coronavirus chain.
(With inputs from Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey and Monotosh Chakraborty)
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