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Gold rush

An entire wholesale market in Vashi works 22 hours a day, six days a week, to get your mangoes to you. Meet the labourers, overseers, sorters and packers, some of whom travel from as far away as Ayodhya each year. Riddhi Doshi writes.

mumbai Updated: Mar 31, 2013 01:00 IST
Riddhi Doshi
Riddhi Doshi
Hindustan Times

Amid the dented trucks and worn tempos parked in the fruit section of the APMC market in Vashi sits a plush, white, air-conditioned luxury bus.

Its passengers are unusually quiet — perhaps because they are not the usual holiday crowds, but rather crates of precious mangoes. Boxes of the golden fruit are stacked in every seat, in the aisle, even on the luggage carrier atop the bus.

“During mango season, it’s not always possible to find a truck,” says Gujarat-based supplier Anant Nikam, 32. “So we hire these buses to carry our produce. This is actually the fourth such busload to arrive at the market today.”

It’s not just luxury buses that are repurposed to welcome the king of fruits. Across the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC)’s fruit section, new stalls are erected, special straw brought in and working hours expanded to make the most of this, the most profitable season.

Between mid-March and June, the day ends at 1 am and begins two hours later, with exhausted labourers emerging from their napping spaces under trucks and behind stalls to help the traders, wholesalers, overseers and purchasing experts get the fruit to the retailer, and then to you.

The number of vendors arriving here every day, meanwhile, triples — from 5,000 to 15,000 — the only time in the year when this happens.

Some of these seasonal vendors are grocers and shopkeepers from across Mumbai, eager to cash in. Others have come in groups of hundreds from as far away as Ayodhya, settling into the same tiny rooms each year, setting up their pop-up stalls across the city, and boarding the same trains back home once the season is over.

“In all, the market’s 1,400 licenced wholesalers receive a minimum of 10,000 crates a day during mango season, each crate holding anything from 36 to 240 mangoes,” says DG Makode, deputy secretary of the APMC fruit market.

A look at how the many links come together on a single day, to ensure that your mango gets to your doorstep.

The labourer
The first truckloads of mangoes pull into the fruit market at 3 am, ending their long journeys from across the country. The rumble of their wheels wakes Santosh Maharugade, 33, who has been sleeping under a stationary tempo.

In moments, he is helping offload raw mangoes packed in wooden crates. The crates weigh about 25 kg each and must be stacked carefully on a handcart, to be taken to a wholesaler’s godown.

Maharugade is paid Rs 5 to Rs 6 per crate and makes about Rs 1,000 a day during the mango season — up from R300 the rest of the year.

“The job takes its toll on our backs, necks and legs, but we have to ignore the pain,” says Maharugade, who is originally from Satara and has worked at the market for 15 years. “This is our time to earn as much as possible.”

In addition to the labourers employed at the fruit market, hundreds more arrive for the mango season from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand each year, making their money as Maharugade does and returning home in June and July.

The overseer
Maharugade is among hundreds of labourers at the market, overseen in groups. Tanaji Jagdale, 35, oversees one such group, of 21 labourers, assigning tasks and supervising work. Originally from Satara, he has been working here for 15 years. Jagdale handles about 25 truckloads a day — a total of about 6,000 crates — earning Rs 500 a day during the mango season, up from Rs 250 the rest of the year. “I have to be very attentive to make sure that not a single crate is stolen or damaged,” he says.

The godown worker
After the raw fruit has reached the wholesaler’s godown, the godown worker takes over. Most are migrants from UP and Jharkhand and travel to Mumbai each year for the mango season.

Mohammad Akram, 26, for instance, has been making his way here from Jharkhand every season for eight years. His job is to weigh each mango and then sort them, first by weight and then by ripeness. Mangoes with marks or soft spots are a separate category, sold primarily to juice vendors.

Some of the mangoes are then stacked in ripening chambers, a special facility where chemicals are used to quicken the process, considered a healthier option than that the carbide tablets that many wholesalers use. Once ripe, the fruits are packaged.

The grass vendor
Packaging is one of the most crucial elements in the mango supply chain. With a fruit so delicate, the type of hay, paper and box used go a long way towards determining shelf life. “Ideally, the hay must be made from soft rice grass that has grown in black soil,” says Vasant Bhagat, 33, a hay seller who sets up shop here for three months each year.

Bhagat owns a rice farm in Pen village in Maharashtra’s coastal Raigad district. For 12 years, he has commuted to Vashi every day during this season, commuting by train and sometimes bus for two to three hours a day with his hay, earning about R 20,000 a month.

The box seller
The market’s scrap dealers usually turn into box dealers during mango season, filling every available square foot of their stalls with stacks of empty cardboard boxes. The boxes cost Rs 280 per dozen and fly off the shelves. “The extra cash is always welcome,” says scrap dealer Pratik Lakshman, 30.

The wholesaler
At the wholesaler’s shops, the packed mangoes, usually sourced from trusted farmers, are sold to retailers. “I buy from 400 farmers across the country,” says Balasaheb Bende, 52, a third-generation mango wholesaler.

The purchasing expert
Every wholesaler has a trusted mango expert whose job it is to judge the quality of a mango if he needs to source produce from a new supplier or another wholesaler. Gulab Shinde, in his late-fifties, has performed this function at the APMC fruit market for 30 years. “I have to admit, I am not always right,” he says, laughing. “But I am right most of the time.”

The retailer
Retailers arrive at the market every morning, to replenish their stock.

The consumer
It is a rare Mumbaiite who does not love mangoes. But most will wait till the prices drop before getting their first taste of the season.

Not Hiral Shah, 26. This businesswoman, Wadala resident and self-confessed mango freak bought her first dozen two weeks ago, at a cost of R750. “My local retailer always brings me a crate as soon as he starts buying them from the APMC market,” she says, grinning. “Now that they’re here, I will indulge non-stop till June.”

First Published: Mar 31, 2013 00:58 IST