The clientele at Montu Nag’s stationery and tea shop in Guwahati’s Ulubari area began thinning when social distancing became the buzzword a week ago.
He sold three cups of tea by noon on Saturday. The total sale on Friday was ₹134 while people, driven by panic to stock up essentials, crowded the shop of the adjoining grocer.
“We are suffering because rich people who went abroad brought the virus with them. They should be made to pay for our loss of business. This situation is as good as being ordered not to trade,” Mr. Nag said.
For Santosh Kumar from Bihar’s Madhubani, things were never so bad in the last 10 years, not even during the three days of shutdown due to violent protests against the CAA in December 2019. The owner of his rickshaw, Lucky Ali, spared him the daily rent of ₹80 during those three days.
He hopes for a similar relief because there is hardly anyone to ride his rickshaw although he sanitises it with a liquid antiseptic.“First came the battery-operated three-wheelers, then the agitation and now this dangerous disease. I earned only ₹20 from one passenger against an average ₹300 by noon on normal days. I hope I can make at least ₹80 to pay the maalik (owner),” said the rickshaw-puller.
Ajay Thakur thought of going home to eastern Assam’s Sarupathar after the government ordered all barber shops shut on March 15. But his folks advised him to stay put as travelling could be risky.
“No one will feed us if we don’t work. I have started visiting the houses of some clients but there’s a huge difference in providing the service to many at one place,” he said, adding that his income has fallen by 70%.
Labu Pator of Bonda near Guwahati has switched over from selling chicken to fish. “Chicken prices halved because of the fear that meat increases the possibility of catching the virus,” he said.
Fish retailer Ganesh Gupta said there’s hardly anything to sell. “The wholesalers have cut down imports and the local fish, available more in the countryside, are too costly for the few buyers who come,” he said.
Bigger businesses have suffered too. “Things are coming to a standstill. We might be able to pay the employees for a month from our reserves. But if the situation does not improve, we might have to request them to forego their salaries until we are back in shape, since money has to be set aside for bank loan repayment and provident fund,” said Bhaskar Dutta Baruah, who runs a book store and a resort.
Few have had it worse than Assam’s weavers and silk traders whom the COVID-19 crisis has struck during peak sale season ahead of Bohag or Rongali Bihu. “We received the first blow when raw yarn from China stopped coming after the Wuhan outbreak. Now the buyers have vanished. We may take a year to recover,” said Nihar Ranjan Kalita, secretary of a weavers’ association. He admitted that the “issue is bigger than business”, but said the government should come up with a package for weavers – and workers in other sectors too – like France has done to absorb the impact on the local economy.
Some like Mehboob Hussain, a construction worker engaged in a drainage project, prefer the quietness around. “What is the guarantee that we will not die at home in Dhubri? We cannot afford to miss a day’s work and with the streets almost empty, we can work in peace and with less fear of contamination,” he said.