Babu Bazar, one of the most crowded places in Dhaka, was completely unfamiliar as the streets were almost totally empty. The everlasting traffic congestion was gone. Only a few people could be seen here and there who were busy purchasing essential goods.
Anyone who had seen the place on a regular day would be utterly surprised by the look that it has taken during the lockdown period due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beside the Babu Bazar bridge half a dozen wholesale rice shops were open. All the other stores in that row were closed. Hand-pulled carts that used to hoard products were chained together and parked under the bridge.
S and H Enterprise, a rice wholesale shop, has been witnessing a downward trend in its sales. "We sell around 15-16 sacks in a day, very few people come to the wholesale market now," said Ismail, manager of the shop.
However, Alek Chan Rice Enterprise – another rice wholesaler – claims that the pandemic has had little to no effect on its business.
The proprietor of Alek Chan Rice Enterprise, Md Selim said, "Our stock gets sold every day, the price is stable and the sales are the same as well." The only issue they are facing is an increase in transportation costs, which is due to a shortage of vehicles and drivers, he said.
The market price will go down by next week when the new shipments of rice arrive, Selim added.
During the first few days of the lockdown, hundreds and thousands of people rushed to the supermarkets and wholesale markets to stock essential goods in fear of the pandemic.
As the government imposed "holiday" to stop the spread of COVID-19, a large number of city dwellers left Dhaka. And throughout this period, wholesalers and retailers of daily consumable products have been operating their businesses to maintain a proper supply of food for the capital's residents.
The pandemic has also stopped the usual liveliness of all the other busy wholesale markets of Dhaka including Shyam Bazar and Jatrabari wholesale markets. Most of the shutters of these markets are down. The overflowing crowds are missing. But still, the markets follow the same routine; start during the morning and end by noon.
From Babu Bazar, we moved towards Sadarghat – the largest trade hub of fast-moving consumer goods in Dhaka. The streets of fruits and vegetable markets were packed with vehicles full of fresh consumable products as usual. However, there were hardly any consumers.
To restrict movement, the police and the local people have barricaded most of the streets in the Sadarghat area. The road leading to Kotuali Police Station from Sadarghat terminal had no sign of vehicles on it. Majority of the wholesale shops in the area have remained closed since the lockdown was initiated. The market of fresh fruits and vegetables, however, are still operating.
Although the market is active, the number of buyers is very low. A handful of customers could be seen rushing through the market; purchasing whatever they need and heading straight out without any delay. Some customers could be seen wearing PPEs, while there are some who were still moving around without any protective gears.
The price for most fruit items remains the same, but there has been a price hike for oranges and tangerines. "Oranges and tangerines are doing well in the market but the demand for Brazilian apples and Chinese pears has decreased. We are currently facing a loss of Tk150-200 on every carton," said Rezaul, proprietor of Manik Enterprise.
The marketplace is overflowing with green and orange pumpkins. Since the lockdown, the low demand for pumpkins has reduced its prices.
Md Shakil, proprietor of Rohim Miya Enterprise, a wholesaler of pumpkins, said, "The prices have dropped drastically. There are no people in Dhaka now so we are not being able to sell our stock. I bought a stock three days ago and still have not been able to sell it."
A usual pumpkin of Tk30 is being sold for Tk12 now, he said.
Big potatoes are being sold for Tk110 per palla (five kilograms), tomatoes are being sold for Tk70 per palla and local onions are being sold at Tk250.
Compared to its usual days, the marketplace lacks customers as the pandemic hit the country.
Masud who came out to buy groceries for his family said, "I try to buy groceries for the entire week. I mostly try to buy items that will last long. Fresh vegetables and fruits are available in the market; so I try to buy as much as possible, keeping its shelf-life in mind."
"Most products are out of stock; as a result, the prices are fluctuating. Most shops are closed; so it becomes very difficult to buy the things I need," he added.
There is a huge supply of watermelons in the market now. Wholesalers in Sadarghat are selling per hundred watermelons within a price range of Tk50-200 depending on the size. This condition is consistent in most wholesale markets including the Jatrabari wholesale market.
Kawser Ahmed, proprietor of Ma Babar Dowa Banijjaloy of Jatrabari, said, "The price depends on the number of pieces being sold; 100 pieces of average size watermelon are sold for Tk150. The same watermelon is sold for Tk350 a piece."
The watermelon market is now very unstable; with the prices dropping the wholesalers are unsure of what to expect the next day as there is no surety of what size will arrive at the market every day. Kawser Ahmed says, "We sell whatever we get on a particular profit margin."