By Harihar Swarup
There are many examples like Mahender Kumar, an autorickaw owner in Delhi. He has grown some 20 varieties of medicinal plants on the roof of his vehicle. He says it is his contribution to the efforts to improve Delhi’s air quality and weather. It also keeps the vehicle cool during summer.
Mahender Kumar’s example is not solitary; there are many like him. With an extension of the Covid-19 lockdown, many small non-essential businesses such as laundry services, e-rickshaw drivers, roadside eatery owners and small shopkeepers have now taken to selling fruits and vegetables to fend for themselves.
These people have been forced to take up the far less profitable business as the lockdown, which banned non-essential services, dried up much of their finances.
Take the example of Brij Kumar, who was an e-rickshaw driver in Dwarka before the lockdown, but now sells fruits and vegetables on a cart in the service lanes of Dwarka.
“I thought the lockdown would last for two weeks and I had enough saved away to manage. But then when the lockdown got extended beyond 14 April, I had to think of a way out. My neighbour was selling vegetables and I tagged along with him to Azadpur Mandi to buy vegetables and fruits,” he said.
Before driving e-rickshaw, Kumar was an electrician, working in one of the societies in Dwarka. But he lost that job in 2018, following which he started driving the e-rickshaw, while also working as an electrician on a part-time basis. But the extension of the lockdown again forced him to switch his livelihood.
Kumar now earns anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 1,000 per day. He said he used to earn Rs 600-700 a day by driving e-rickshaw.
Kumar, however, also plans to use his free time to service air-conditioners in housing societies as the Delhi government has allowed electricians and plumbers to resume work.
Kapil Singh, owner of a parantha joint in Sangam Vihar area of south Delhi, has also resorted to selling fruits and vegetables after the lockdown was extended beyond 14 April.
“I had employed two other people to help me run my eatery as I used to sell various items other than parantha like beverages, cigarettes and processed foods. After the extension of the lockdown in April, I couldn’t pay them any money as all my savings got over and the three of us were left with no income.
“We approached the local police multiple times to seek permission to open my shop, but the staff there advised me to sell vegetables and fruits, instead, to survive for the remaining days as I used to purchase them any way from the mandi,” added Singh.
Rambeer Kumar, a native of Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, who used to earn his livelihood through laundry services in Qutab Institutional Area in south Delhi, has also been selling fruits and vegetables for the past month.
“Due to closure of offices across cities after the lockdown, there has been at least a 70 per cent fall in the number of my customers because no one now wants to get their clothes washed and ironed. The same customers are, however, now helping me to survive by buying my fruits and vegetables,” he told The Print.
Kumar said he now earns Rs 700-800 a day, while earlier he used to earn Rs 1,000 a day.
Shutdown of businesses and dip in customer base, however, aren’t just the only problems plaguing these small business owners. Supply of vital raw materials is another issue confronting them, which, they said, will affect resumption of their businesses even after the lockdown is lifted.
“Ever since the lockdown has been implemented, the local coal market has remained closed. Without coal, it’s impossible to resume normal operations as silk and linen clothes need to be specifically pressed by coal-powered iron. I just have 8-10 days of coal stock with me,” Rambeer Kumar told The Print.
Similarly, Rakesh Chaurasia, a paan shop owner in Turkman gate who is also selling fruits for a living, said the supply of betel leaves has completely stopped due to the lockdown.
“In the ramzaan (month), a large number of people used to come to my shop to have paan after offering their evening prayers and it used to be one of my peak income months apart from festivals in winter. But this year the supply of betel leaves from Bihar and West Bengal has completely stopped after the lockdown,” he added.
“I could have managed to supply paan at least to my regular customers in the evening if the supply of betel leaves would have continued, but now I have to resort to selling fruits, which fetches me a decent income,” added Chaurasia.
Driving down Major Sushil Aima Marg through Sector 22A towards Rezang La Chowk, it is hard to miss the autorickshaws dotting the road on the left in twos and threes. In fact, there is something unusual about these vehicles that makes their presence felt predominantly. Used for ferrying passengers before COVID-19 days, these autorickshaws have now been converted into makeshift mobile vegetable carts by removing their roofs.
A little enquiry with these drivers-turned-vegetable vendors reveals that this trend has gained momentum in the Millennium City over the past fortnight or so. With metro rail and trains remaining suspended and schools and offices being shut, autorickshaw drivers, mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh, have been rendered jobless and forced to sell vegetables to make both ends meet.
Having left Gurugram for his home in Badaun, U.P., during the lockdown in a private vehicle, Siraj Hussain returned to the city a fortnight ago to start work again, but soon realised that not much had changed, at least for the autorickshaw drivers, despite the ‘unlock’ phase. (IPA Service)