Instead of perfume, it is the smell of sanitiser that pervades the air. The groom is welcomed by a mustachioed guard holding a thermal device to test his temperature before the bride’s sister brings the aarti thali (plate).
It is next to impossible to convince the female guests to put the masks on. After all, they have spent thousands of rupees on make-up. This wedding season, life in a banquet hall has been reduced to a long list of dos and don’ts and the stakeholders are feeling the pinch.
As the guests come and go, the manager is busy reminding the parents of the groom and the bride to keep the number to 100, the prescribed limit by the government. The reference point is a Meerut case where the manager of the banquet hall, along with fathers of bride and groom, were booked for flouting COVID-19 norms. Nobody wants to be labelled a “super spreader”. “Keep them floating”, is the new mantra but is hard to practise. How would you ask the groom’s friends jiving to “ Mere yaar ki shaadi hai ” to maintain social distance. The beat constable comes in and reassures that as long as there is no crowd on the road, he will keep looking the other way.
“We are running heavy losses. This is a business where commitment has to be kept and right now we are fulfilling just that,” says Pradeep Sharma, general manager of Rudrakshaa banquet hall on Vaishali Metro premises in Ghazia-bad. Unlike dozens of wedding farms that dot the stretch that connects GT Road to NH-9 in Ghaziabad, Rudrakshaa has put billboards reminding guests to follow COVID protocol, including downloading the Aarogya Setu app.
Giving a sense of the changed scenario, Mr. Sharma says his banquet hall has a seating capacity on the ground floor for 270 people. “For maintaining social distancing, we reduced it to 200 but now we offer only 100, following the government guidelines. We can’t survive with these numbers as our input costs on lighting, staff salary, maintenance and rent remain the same.”
The surge in COVID-19 cases after Deepavali, he says, has come as a double whammy for the wedding industry. “We were sinking after the April season was washed out. We expected to breathe easy this season but now we are choking again. After December 12, for the next four months, there is no work as there is no auspicious date for weddings. If we see a surge in April as well, the industry would be finished,” he says.
“Aeroplanes and buses are running to full capacity but a banquet hall, which has a capacity to accommodate 1,000 guests, can host only 100.” This many people, he says, could be seen outside a wine shop near his hall. “This is unjustified and I appeal to the government to relax the restrictions,” says Vivek Mohan, who runs a wedding farm on NH-9 on lease.
He, however, agrees that the surge in COVID-19 numbers is real as many weddings are getting postponed or cancelled because somebody in the family has been hospitalised or died because of the infection. “The sudden cancellations are adding to our losses as there is no point in keeping the booking amount and harassing a family that is already grieving. Anyway, forfeiting the advance amount of ₹50,000 for a booking of ₹5 lakh doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
Md. Aslam, the bandmaster of Punjab band, plays his trumpet to show how his lungs are in good shape. He tries to make a distinction between COVID-19 and seasonal flu. “An atmosphere of fear is being created, keeping us of out of business. We are artists, we can’t suddenly start lifting bricks,” he avers as he prepares for the evening with a glass of country liquor. “Earlier, we had bookings for three shifts and up to 30 members used to play. Now we have only one and that too not on all the dates of the wedding season and the number of members has come down to 15, including those holding the lights.”
Many owners complain that lack of clarity in guidelines and the inability to implement them gives the administration an opportunity to flex its muscles arbitrarily. For instance, when the surge started, word spread that bands would not be allowed. “If baraat is not allowed to dance, it means mare and chariots also go out of the equation, rendering many jobless,” remarks Mr. Mohan.
An order from Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath clarified that bands and DJs could play music and asked the officials not to unnecessarily harass people in the name of implementing guidelines.
“It is an unorganised industry and COVID-19 can’t suddenly bring in order,” says Mr. Sharma, adding that there is no clarity on how many members could play in a band. “Despite being a part of the hospitality business, banquet halls are seen differently,” he says. It is seen as a “juicy business” from which corrupt officials could take their pound of flesh whenever they feel like. “The pandemic has given the corrupt just another opportunity,” says Mr. Sharma.
Satyendra Tomar, a parking manager at one of the farms says, the police come, count the number of cars and buses parked and on its basis assess the number of guests inside. They expect hands would be greased. “Earlier, it was just about getting some free food packed, now they have to be ‘entertained’ in various other ways,” says Mr. Tomar.
Setting an example
Iraj Raja, Circle Officer, Meerut Cantt, who led a raid at Baijal Bhawan and booked the fathers of the bride and groom and the banquet hall owner under Sections 188, 269 and 270 of the IPC and Section 3 of the Epidemic Act for violating the COVID-19 guidelines, says it acted as a deterrent. “The idea was not to harass but to make people realise the dangers of flouting the norms. We are observing that more people are now following the guidelines. Since then, CM sir’s order has also come. It has provided us clarity but in situations like weddings, unless people follow the guidelines themselves, it is hard making them follow,” says Mr. Raja.
Meanwhile, beaming from ear to ear, Yogendra from Bijnor is waiting outside a wedding farm on the outskirts of Modinagar to collect his ₹400 for playing in the band after eight months. “I switched to construction work during the lockdown but this is where I belong,” he says.