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  • Ekta Kumar

Local markets - a way of life

Given that the outbreak of Covid19 in the initial phases was linked to a local wet market in Wuhan, traditional markets are under the scanner for all the right reasons. But banning them is not a solution. Markets like these are a part of our culinary heritage. The Australian Prime Minister may be ‘totally puzzled’ by this phenomenon, but it is a way of life for us.

Our childhood must have memories of trips to the bustling local bazaar. I remember the mountains of vegetables and fruit stacked in cane baskets. A riot of colours and smells. The sounds of hawkers calling out, and customers haggling and talking. The meats and the fish was in a corner towards the end, fresh flowers and the nariyal paani guy sat at the entrance. The emergence of supermarkets and online grocery stores might have changed things a little in urban centres, but most of India still shop for food from similar ‘wet markets’ in their neighbourhood, either early morning or on their way back from work.

A live animal market in Wuhan was held responsible for the pandemic that has dragged the world to a massive slowdown. The exact origins of the virus is unknown, but given that the outbreak in the initial phases was linked to a local wet market in Wuhan, questions are being asked about the safety of such markets. Close proximity of species, unhygienic conditions and stressed animals, which results in lower immunity, can be dangerous. Birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals are all potential threats. There is a real possibility of newer, deadlier viruses making the jump from them to us.

World leaders led by the UN, have called for a global ban on wildlife markets to prevent future pandemics such as the COVID-19. There are growing calls, particularly from the western world, to shut down live animal markets. But despite their valid fears, it will not be a sustainable solution. Wet markets are a part of the culinary culture of the east. The tradition is to eat fresh food, not frozen, bought from a vendor you trust, not a faceless corporation who has packaged and neatly labelled your meat. Australia’s Prime Minister is ‘totally puzzled’ by this phenomenon, which is but a way of life for us.

Millions of traders, hawkers, butchers and vendors in India make their living through markets like these. The size of our meat, poultry and fish business is well over billions of dollars. Over 70 per cent of our country is non-vegetarian, and although poultry is most consumed, we also eat porcupine, deer, frogs, boar, worms, rabbits, snakes, snails, quails, tortoise, bison and dogs.

Wet markets are cheaper, more personal and no doubt they are fresher. Yes, rules are flouted, exotic animals sold, livestock stacked mercilessly and entrails, faecus, blood and feather clot the drains. Most of the meat we consume is farmed, where animals are reared, pumped with antibiotics and bred solely to be consumed. All of that ideally should change.

But a total ban is unfair. It doesn’t solve the problem. There is a risk of infection every time we encroach on forests to build settlements. Animals are slaughtered not just in the markets, but for religious ceremonies. They are killed for food and medicine. A ban will only lead to a thriving black market, where controls will be even tougher.

Food is essential for life. So much of our culture, memories, habits and customs are associated with food. There is enough historical evidence to show that we ate a vast variety of meats even thousands of years ago. The Vedas listed around fifty animals that were suitable for sacrifice, and hence could be consumed. This diversity is our culinary heritage. What we eat, how we source it, cook it and eat it, defines our choices and who we are.

Traditional markets are under the scanner for the right reasons, but banning them is not a solution. Even contemplating such a move, is inherently unfair.

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