TIRUCHIRAPPALLI - Vegetable markets in Tiruchirappalli are buzzing with activity ahead of the Tamil New Year, with traders packing brinjals, beans, cucumbers, drumsticks, mangoes, bananas and the seasonal palm fruit in export-grade bags.
"We put fresh country vegetables and fruits on late-night passenger flights from Tiruchirappalli to Singapore, so that they are in the shops in Little India and Tekka market by 5am," said Mr George Santhona, proprietor of Blessing Cargo.
Over 70 per cent of the fresh vegetables in Singapore's Little India are flown in from Tiruchirappalli and Chennai in Tamil Nadu, said traders in Tekka market. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, vegetables have become at least three times more expensive since March 2020, when India imposed a three-month lockdown, said traders in Singapore.
The price hike is felt most acutely during festive seasons - the Tamil New Year (which falls on April 14 this year), Deepavali, Eid or Christmas - when fresh produce is in high demand in countries with Indian-origin populations. Large traditional meals are cooked at home and restaurants serve special dishes.
Mr K. M. Ramalingam, managing director of Sri Murugan Trading, one of the biggest supermarkets supplying Indian groceries in Singapore, said the island imports 20 tonnes of vegetables a day from India. This rises to about 30 tonnes over the weekend or ahead of festivals.
Except for tomato, beetroot and leafy vegetables that traders get at cheaper prices from Malaysia and China, every other vegetable in Singapore arrives daily from India, especially Tamil Nadu.
"India has a variety of bananas, mangoes and beans, smaller but tastier ladyfingers and bitter gourd, and strong drumsticks - Tamil, Bengali and Malayali people in Singapore prefer this quality," said Mr Mustafa Shahul Hameed, managing director of MN Trading, one of Tekka market's oldest stalls.
These perishable goods are sent via daily passenger and cargo flights - most of them taking off from Tiruchirappalli and Chennai international airports, with jasmine being flown from Madurai and fruits sometimes from Coimbatore, Madurai and Bangalore airports.
Mr Hameed said that when India went into lockdown on March 24 last year and international flights stopped, he had to shut down his shop as vegetables and fruits from India no longer arrived.
"Even after flights restarted, freight prices shot up to at least $2-3 per kg," said Mr Hameed, who has now started stocking more Thai and Indonesian vegetables for customers unwilling to pay for more expensive produce from India.
Imports have become costlier during the pandemic due to infrequent passenger flights and increased freight costs.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak and with regular scheduled flights from Air India, Scoot, Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Sri Lankan Airways, SpiceJet and Indigo airlines, there were at least two daily direct flights from each of Tamil Nadu's airports to Singapore.
"There were over 120 flights taking off every month from Tiruchirappalli airport - at least 70 per cent of them going to Singapore and Malaysia. Now, only the Air India evacuation flight departs every day," said Mr Santhona as he supervised labourers sorting elephant yam, palm fruit, chillies and lemons for export in the cargo area near the airport.
Local transportation costs in India have also spiked due to diesel prices going from $ 1.17 per litre in April 2020 to $ 1.54 per litre in April this year. Cartons and plastic bags cost about 50 per cent more too. In addition, many vegetable suppliers have stopped offering 15-day credit to exporters, and insist on advance payments, said Mr Balakrishnan Harikumar from NPK Fruits Export and Imports.
With fewer passenger flights, more goods are now being sent by cargo flights. Since freight charges are higher for cargo flights, the vegetables Mr Ramalingam sold in Tekka market for $5 a kg before the pandemic are now priced at $8 or $9. Onions have tripled in price, forcing him to import them from Pakistan for six months. He switched back to buying from India only last month.
"With Covid-19, salaries are cut, overtimes are down, and people's spending power is generally less, so they will curtail expenses where they can. Customers only buy half the quantity if the price has doubled," said Mr Ramalingam.
During the Tamil New Year and Ramadan, however, he believed South Asians who prefer Indian country vegetables would pay no heed to the price.