In 2019, Scroll.in’s Hard Times series sought to explain and illustrate how India’s slowest economic growth in a decade was affecting ordinary people. This followed reporting by Scroll.in in 2016 and 2017 on the effects that demonetisation had on the lives of Indians around the country.
As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, Hard Times now takes a look at the impact of India’s draconian lockdown on individuals and firms from all corners of the economy. Read all of the pieces in the Lockdown Hard Times series here.
Sometime in late 2019, 26-year-old Pankaj Rabha pooled in all of the money he had managed to save from his salary as a courier delivery boy into setting up a momo stall in Guwahati’s Beltola market. Rabha ran a tight ship – in terms of help, he only had his long-time neighbour, Sanjay Boro.
The stall, which does not have a name, took off quickly. At Rs 50 a plate, the pork momos (five mid-sized dumplings with a side of chicken broth) were the biggest hit, according to Rabha. “We had a regular bunch of customers who would come almost every evening,” he said. “We were doing business of around Rs 1,500 daily.”
With around Rs 700-Rs 800 going into the raw materials, Rabha made a profit of around Rs 700 every day. Enough not only to expand the menu – the new items added were fried rice and noodles – but also for Rabha to take a permanent space on rent.
But just as things were looking up, came the novel coronavirus. In response, the Indian government enforced a near-complete lockdown for 21 days starting on March 25 to contain the spread of the disease. The restrictions were lifted in phases, but vendors like Rabha – who sold “non-essential” items – were effectively out of business until the end of May.
When he finally did in the first week of June, Rabha said he had “no money at all” to buy the meat, vegetables and flour for the momos (for now, they are sticking to only momos). “I got all of it on credit,” he said. “All the money that I had, I put into buying and setting up the new shop which I can’t even open now.”
Rabha said he felt it was best to stick to the outdoor stall to cut down on costs.
As it is, business has been painfully slow too since reopening. Rabha and Boro, after much thought, reopened on June 4, a Thursday – one of the two days of the week when the open-air haat bazaar convenes in the market. Yet, there were few people. “Not even 20% of the customers we see usually,” he said. “I think people are just scared to eat out now.”
As part of the economic package to offset the losses caused by the lockdown, the government has announced a Rs 5,000 crore special credit facility for street vendors. The scheme, according to the government, will “support nearly 50 lakh street vendors” by providing up to Rs 10,000 as working capital.
Rabha said he was not aware of the announcement. He said he was not interested in any case. “If I take a loan, how will I repay it considering business is so down?” he asked.
Yet, Rabha was loath to blaming the government. “How many people can the government help after all?” he added.
But he was bitter about the lockdown. “For people like us, it ended everything,” he said. “Today I do not even have the money to buy meat for momos.”