The cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, radish and all other vegetables being cooked in the kitchens of Dhaka today were yielded from distant farmlands yesterday.
Although roads have cut short the shipping time of the perishable goods, farmers and consumers have no shortcut linking the producers and consumers.
A number of business professionals like paikar (merchant), bepari (agent) arotdar (wholesaler) and mahajon (investor) constitute the middlemen, and the minti (porter), transport workers also has a stake in the business of fruiting the goods to the arats or landing stations in the cities.
In a supply chain where goods carrying involved a lot of unwarranted expenses, including payment of extortion, the middlemen can easily manipulate commodity prices.
Karwan Bazar, the largest landing station for wholesale vegetable in Dhaka, belongs to traders who supply three-fourths of the vegetable demand for Dhaka – fetching over Tk5 crore daily.
"Every night 350-400 trucks loaded with more than 4,000 tonnes of vegetables arrive at Karwan Bazar. On an average a truck carries 10 tonnes of vegetables," said Omar Faruk, president of Karwan Bazar Khudra Arat Bebasayee Samabay Samiti (Karwan Bazar Traders' Association).
All the stocks of vegetable you see here are resold by at least three parties in Karwan Bazar before retailing across Dhaka localities.
Traders say that vegetables popular among both local and foreign consumers are available at Karwan Bazar.
"A major portion of the vegetables landing in the market are sourced from some northern and north-western districts. Every day, around 550 carriers including large or mini trucks, pick-up vans and rickshaw vans are used to run the supply chain," said Omar.
Given the huge volume of commercial activities in a single location at the heart of the capital, decentralisation of the market through a Tk350-crore relocation project has remained halted for over a decade.
As a part of the project, city corporation authorities have constructed permanent markets at Aminbazar, Mohakhali and Jatrabari.
However, the Karwan Bazar-based traders are reluctant to shift to these locations, claiming that the markets lack space to make room for the huge volume of commercial activities.
Under the tin-shed block of Karwan Bazar, 45-year-old Imam Ali sits on a concrete floor, selling small amounts of onion, potato, tomato and other vegetables throughout the day.
Retail prices are generally Tk5-10 higher than wholesale prices.
Imam is usually very busy during the evening, when office workers throng the market to buy groceries before heading home.
However, Imam has to vacate the space he rents for Tk10,000 per month, before 10:00pm every day.
One Thursday evening, as we walked through the market's corridors, mostly occupied by retail shoppers and porters, a 45-year old bepari named Abdur Rashid, was found waking up from a nap at a corner. With one hour till 10:00pm we had time for a conversation.
Rashid, originally from Gabtali upazila of Bogura, is a business partner of a six-member group with a joint investment of Tk6 lakh. His other partners collect vegetables from fields and transport the produce, while Rashid maintains the wholesale part of the business in Dhaka and Tangail.
"For the last two months, I have been involved in wholesaling radish in Karwan Bazar. After taking a 15-day break, I will wholesale cabbage in Tangail," Rashid told The Business Standard.
He was waiting for half a truckload of radish to arrive. The produce were loaded on trucks at Gabtali in the afternoon and would be unloaded at Karwan Bazar at 11:00pm.
"At the source, each kilogram of radish was bought at Tk8 and I will sell them at Tk15 per kg," he said.
Rashid pays Tk1 per kilogram of the radish as commission to Maa Enterprises, one of the wholesalers who rent the space from Dhaka North City Corporation – the regulatory body of the market.
A wholesaler pays labourers Tk10 for unloading, Tk1 per kg as khajna (rent) to the city corporation and Tk25 to rickshaw van pullers for carrying each sack of the produce.
Alongside Rashid, another bepari Hayatul Islam, 50, from Sherpur district, was waiting for a consignment of eggplant, cucumber and snake gourds. His partners had collected the eggplant for Tk20 per kg.
"I will sell each kg of the eggplant at Tk30," said Hayatul.
As we concluded the conversation, vegetable-laden trucks began to arrive at Karwan Bazar. It was 10:15PM.
Suddenly, we found ourselves among the hustle and bustle of the market. The porters holding tukris – a bamboo-made basket – on their heads and rickshaw van pullers rushing to the trucks parked just outside the market.
All corners and the market-side alleys were brightly lit by electric bulbs. It was time for business.
Upon reaching the north-east corner adjacent to the Tejgaon rail track, we found aratdars standing beside the trucks, were bargaining with local merchants to get the best possible price for the produce.
A typical bargaining scenario unfolded in front of us. Aratdar Mohsin Sarker was selling cauliflowers from Manikganj. His asking price was Tk34,000 for 14,00 pieces.
"I will pay Tk30,000 at maximum," said a Dhaka-based paikar.
"That is not enough. I can lower the price by Tk500," Mohsin replied.
After a couple of minutes, the cauliflowers were sold at Tk32,850.
Mohsin said, as a second-party seller, he had made Tk0.5 profit per piece of cauliflower.
Sekendar Gazi, another paikar belonging to the third party in the business, bought 90 maunds of Mulakata variety onion from an aratdar. The onions that had arrived from Faridpur were now stockpiled on the Karwan Bazar roadside.
To the small paikars who wholesale the produce at various kitchen markets in Dhaka, Sekendar asked Tk355 per 5kg of the onions.
"Even if I could sell the onions at Tk352, I would still make a profit of Tk1.5 per kg," he said.
A small paikar Shajahan Sheikh purchased vegetable worth Tk50,000, including one maund of eggplant, 50kg each of papaya, cucumber, radish, bean, turnip and chili that night.
He said he would sell the produce at a kitchen market near Khilkhet level-crossing, and profit Tk2-10 from each kilogram of the vegetables. However, he does not always succeed in selling.
Mohammad Liton Khan, another small paikar, bought 100 pieces of cauliflower at Tk30 per piece the same night. He said that he wanted to sell them at Tk50 per piece in the Motijheel kitchen market.
At 01:00am, more trucks arrived, further congesting the roads adjacent to the market. However, the busy van pullers and mintis did not care about the crowd.
"Hey…side…side [move away]," they shouted while moving with heavy loads on their heads.
Md Ayub Ali, 50, was slowly pulling his rickshaw van on foot in the bustling market. With a long beard and an orange kurta, he looked different from the other van pullers who were dressed in dirty clothes.
"I had a rice mill in Natore. I used to rear cattle. Four years ago, I lost everything including Tk50 lakh capital money," Ayub said.
"Till September, I had been pulling rickshaws on the Dhaka streets. I saved some money that time. When my health deteriorated, I invested the savings into the business – retailing vegetables."
Ayub, father of two sons and a daughter, struggles hard to make ends meet. When he is free, he composes songs.
"At present, my capital is Tk3,000 and the rickshaw van. Every night, I collect vegetables from Karwan Bazar and sell them in Jatrabari the next day. I try to make at least Tk500 profit every day," he said.
The market place was almost completely dominated by men. But there were a few women and children, known as tokai, collecting the leftovers after mintis had loaded or unloaded the goods.
The women did not talk to strangers. Evidently, they were concentrating on the work at hand.
Saiful and Alamin, probably not much older than 14 years of age, were willing to talk to us. In that winter night, they wore tattered pullover and trousers.
Saiful came from Sylhet while Alamin hailed from Lalmonirhat. Except for Eid vacations, they hardly visit their hometowns. For the last three years, the duo has been earning their bread by retailing leftover vegetables at cheaper prices.
"I can earn Tk150-200 every day from this business," Saiful said.
While we were talking, Alamin turned his attention to a hanging cauliflower from a moving truck. He ran, jumped, grabbed it and came down with the vegetable all in within a few seconds. He would sell the piece at Tk15.
"People call us thieves. But we do not mind. This is our livelihood," said Saiful adding that his mother also collects leftovers.
Sometimes mintis brandishing tukri (basket) drove away the tokais or street archins from the spot. Because the tokais illegally share on their stake.
A minti can hold 60-80kg load on their head while unloading and loading vegetables from carriers. For each delivery, a minti gets Tk10. During daytime, they carry shopped items to the retail shoppers' home within one kilometer range.
Their charge is Tk70 minimum.
"On an average, I earn Tk500 daily," said one minti Humayun Kabir, a 30-year old man from Bhaluka, Mymensingh. "This is a hardworking job. We often suffer from headaches, so we need 10-15 days of break."
The poor porters take rest on footpath or under any shed adjacent to the market premises, making the bowl-shape tukri as sleeping bed. For sleeping, sometimes they rent makeshift cabins, all congested and remain dark even in daytime, at the first floor of the neighbouring Karwan Bazar Super Market. The rent is Tk20 while bathing costs Tk five. They also pay Tk20 as rent of the tukri.
The wholesale market stays open till dawn. In phases, the trucks leave, along with the exhausted traders. The market premises are left littered with green waste.
Every day, the market generates over 60 tonnes of green waste, according to locals.
The much talked about relocation
The relocation of Karwan Bazar market to the newly built markets at Jatrabari, Mohakhali and Aminbazar has remained stalled for the last 13 years.
In 2006, the government approved a Tk206 crore project to relocate the market by June 2010.
The delay in building the markets at the three alternative locations escalated the cost to Tk350 crore.
While city corporation officials blamed the lack of cooperation from traders, the traders said the markets at the new locations lack enough space and smooth approaching roads.
Additionally, they said that the existing business flow would be hampered at the new locations.
Traders' leader Omar Faruk, said each wholesaler would require at least 400 square feet of space for their shops. However, the Dhaka North City Corporation has built shops for them with sizes varying between 100 square feet and 120 square feet.
He added that until the government stops operation of privately-run kitchen markets in the Aminbazar neighbourhoods, the traders will not leave Karwan Bazar.
"The traders are skeptical about the sales in the new places," said Mohammad Abdul Hamid Miah, chief revenue officer of Dhaka North City Corporation.
He, however, admitted that the newly built markets are not suitable.
Md Tazul Islam, the Local Government and Rural Development and Cooperative minister, told The Business Standard that there are some faults in the new infrastructures.
"The city corporations are advised to take steps to solve the problems," Tazul said adding that the Karwan Bazar kitchen market would soon be relocated.