With factories closed and other sources of income diminishing, many people from low income groups have turned to selling vegetables on mobile carts in different areas of the city. In a time when even going out for groceries in difficult, these van-gari wallahs have become an important lifeline
With a hesitant face, Babu is standing in front of a cycle van and arranging the metal weights on a rusty weighing scale.
Large pieces of orange-coloured pumpkin, few bundles of slender arum-lobe, green spinach, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and coriander leaves, along with earthy potatoes are neatly displayed on the van.
Like other vendors, he is not trying to draw the customers' attention. Customers are voluntarily coming to the van, checking out the produce, bargaining and then buying.
He is just measuring out the vegetables, packing them in paper bags and communicating as little as possible.
What Babu is doing today, is not his occupation. He used to work at a die cutting press factory in Arambagh.
In a family of seven members, he and his brother are the only wage earners.
Since the shutdown was imposed, he did not have any choice but to sell vegetables. He takes help from his brother who is involved in the same profession.
Eid-ul-Fitr is only weeks away, but Babu's factory owner has not yet asked him to return to work. Moreover, his saving is almost finished.
So, here he is in Arambagh, selling vegetables on a van and trying to make ends meet.
Early in the morning, along with a group of local vendors, Babu's brother goes to Jatrabari to buy things in wholesale.
The brother then divides the produce between himself and Babu. Unlike other vendors, Babu does not roam around and is always seen near the same lane in Arambagh.
Usually these sellers start selling from 10am. Sometimes their business is closed by mid-day, sometimes they wait till dusk and take the slightly rotten or damaged vegetables home.
"We cannot afford to throw them away. So, we cut off the rotten parts and use the rest in our cooking," said Babu.
Some seasonal vendors in Arambagh claimed that ward councillors have given them permission to sit here and continue with their businesses. Amid the shutdown, it has eased the life of vendors like Babu, as well as that of local residents.
The shutdown may have slowed things down, but life has to go on anyway. A busy housewife, Rahela Akhter, was buying tomatoes and coriander leaves from Babu. She said, "During this crisis, getting groceries at a walking distance is no less than a blessing. These vendors sell fresh vegetables, that too at a price lower than kitchen markets."
Another customer, Ariful Islam, manager of Saiham Textile Mills Ltd, said, "I prefer buying from these vans than supermarkets as here I can maintain physical distance. My wife is a doctor and she is at the hospital most of the time. It is not possible for me to leave our children unsupervised at home for long. So, I buy things from here, which is near my house."
In the beginning of the shutdown, it was tough to make law enforcers understand that these sellers are actually providing emergency services. However, recently they have been allowed to smoothly move around different areas.
However, for the last few days, a new problem has arisen, which is hijacking. According to some of the vendors, the police do not pay much heed to this issue. Hence, they have found their own solutions of using CNG auto-rickshaws as transport and always traveling in groups.
With a sigh, vendor Ikramul Islam said, "Problems do not end for us. Even when we are earning while risking our lives, we still have to bribe the police and now the rate is twice as higher than usual. Yet, they do not allow us to station on main roads after 4pm. So we move our carts to colonies or different alleys."
The meagre profit that they make is nothing compared to the hardships they endure. Yet, without these vendors, life would have been hard for many households in the city.
The supplies are bought in wholesale from Karwan Bazar, Keraniganj, Wais Ghat and Jatrabari.
Being perishable items, these have to be sold within days. Moreover, unfavourable weather conditions such as rain and fewer customers than usual stops Ikramul and others from buying in bulk.
Ikramul shared that to buy the vegetables, the sellers pool money (Tk2,000-Tk4,000 per person) and their individual profit per day is around Tk500 or Tk1,000.
Those who buy in bulk, buy only one item and their investment is usually more than Tk7,000. It gives them a profit of around Tk1,500 or more. Such vendors mostly sell goods at markets or move around multiple areas in the city.
"Our highest profit is Tk5 per kilo, but it is not fixed," informed Azizur, another vendor. On some days, they sell goods at a loss so that things do not get rotten or wasted.
Roaming around different places increases their risk of contracting the coronavirus. But that does not bother Ikramul or any vendors like him.
Another vendor, Itraj Sheikh said, "I stayed at home for one week but did not get any relief. No one is going to help me with a meal, I understood that. If I do not earn today, how will I feed my children tomorrow?"
Few of them even think that this pandemic is nothing but a myth. They do not wear any masks or gloves and do not bother to maintain social distance.
Salma Begum's five daughters are studying. She used to bear this cost by managing a mess. But now, the city is vacant and she does not have any client.
So, she is selling goods with her unemployed husband.
She was visibly irritated when asked why none of them were wearing any protective equipment.
She said working with hand gloves on only makes things difficult.
"All these illnesses – they are only happening to the rich. The poor like us are going to be fine. The Almighty will take care of us," said Salma.