Small Business, Big Trouble: The Viral Times

The outbreak of coronavirus has taken back happiness from our lives, at least for some time. It has forcefully changed our long habits. Lot of people from different walks of life are at the receiving end of our changed habits. One important segment is the small traders, shopkeepers and hawkers. Apart from their everyday sale they also depend on major festivals for huge sales. The demand for new clothes and other consumer items usually ensure good profit for them. But no more going out for shopping in crowded markets. It is a difficult situation for them.

The virus has already stopped the celebrations of the Bengali New Year, Eid ul-Fitr and Rath Yatra. The same fate awaits many more. Shopkeepers who sell essential commodities are in a little more comfortable position than the rest. The official notification only permitted opening of shops selling essential goods in the lockdown. In the Unlockdown 1.0 only some non-essential shops have been allowed to open. Still people are afraid to go and buy because of the fear of infection. Hawkers face the worst situation. According to the National Hawker Federation, there are around four crore hawkers in the country. They have incurred a huge loss of Rs. 48,960 crore out of total turnover of Rs. 2,88,000 crores within April. What has happened to them in this lockdown? How much loss have they incurred personally? We do not know clearly. Let us discuss few instances.

Poila Baisakh or Bengali New Year is celebrated in a big way in West Bengal. It is one of the very special days for Bengalis. Each year the markets in Kolkata offer Chaitra Sale, annual shopping festival, from 14 March to 14 April. It ensures a huge sale of new clothes, shoes, earrings and many more items. The markets are kept open till midnight and for a month they remain very crowded. During this time in a month hawkers make about 35% of their total annual profit. The sale attracts around fifty to sixty lakh customers. But this year all those vibrant scenes were missing. The markets and pavements were all empty day and night for the first time in decades. It came as a huge blow to thousands of hawkers. They do not even know how the business will get back to normal.

Eid ul-Fitr is a much celebrated national holiday after one month of Ramadan. This is a special day for Muslims and they buy new clothes and other items to celebrate with their families. The profit from this festival sale is always more than the normal sale in the market. But in this lockdown the usual hustle and bustle was missing in the streets. It turned out to be a low-key affair this year.

The Jama Masjid in Delhi saw the lowest attendance in prayers for the first time. According to the meat vendors and livestock traders, transportation of Eid special meat was held up in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The poultry farms have also lowered the production due to their heavy loss in April. The supply chain has been broken by serious restrictions followed during the pandemic. Thus all the vendors have faced huge loss in Eid. Some families are out of work for over two months and almost are out of savings. The rise in price and low supply meant that meat was beyond reach for many families.

Rath Yatra is a week-long festival for devotees of Lord Jagannath and his family. In Puri the event draws around five to ten lakh devotees in a week in June. All of them are seen outside the iconic Puri temple where three chariots remain ready to move. It not only attracts devotees but also small street vendors from Puri and other places to earn extra money. The hotels, restaurants and other business establishments wait eagerly for Rath Yatra to have large footfalls. The religious festival has a major economic dimension.  But this year because of the coronavirus the Supreme Court had initially banned Rath Yatra. This had led to great disappointment to those who were waiting to recover some losses. Then the Supreme Court allowed it but imposed severe restrictions, including curfew, to prevent people from attending the festival. The shutdown of airports, railway stations and bus terminuses for nine days has deprived small traders and hawkers of Odisha from the large customer base they expect during the festival time.

We do not know yet how many festivals will be celebrated without shopping. Small time traders and hawkers in the country are facing tremendous loss even after the Unlockdown 1.0. No one can undermine the importance of safety in such times and no one is arguing that we should crowd the markets as before but the fact remains that they are paying a heavy cost because of the pandemic.