Jasvir Singh Mann, owner of Mann Chahal Dhaba on the Jalandhar-Amritsar National Highway, was excited when he finally opened his eatery 27 days after lockdown curbs slammed its shutters down. While the curfew in the state continues, Punjab government had recently granted permission to roadside eateries to open for business and receive orders for takeaways. So when Jasvir resumed operations, he hoped that orders for food will start streaming in, steadily. But over the last two days, he has not received a single one. This despite the fact that his highway dhaba, located in Dhilwan, Kapurthala district, is one of the most sought-after eateries among commuters on this stretch, and there are many out on the road thanks to the undergoing wheat procurement operation. But the dhaba, with a capacity to feed 150 at a time, wears a deserted look. The staffers wait to serve wearing masks, and there are social distancing markers on the floor, but no customers. Before lockdown, around 400 customers would eat here daily.
Now, Jasvir counts a dozen customers who he says stopped for tea in the last two days, but no one for takeaway food. The Punjab government has only allowed grab-and-go orders with eat-ins still prohibited at these roadside joints. Operations were allowed particularly keeping ‘procurement season’ in mind as many tractor- trolleys and trucks are on the highway shipping wheat during this time.
But despite the last two days, Jasvir says: “I am really thankful to the government that it allowed us to operate when the entire country is under lockdown till May 3. People have to regain their faith in eating out.” He also adds that before opening, the place was properly sanitised.
Several owners of highway dhabas in Punjab say that regaining the faith of customers would be a major challenge in the days to come. They point out that while there are vehicles on the road, most – including truckers – only stop for tea and packed snacks as they prefer carrying essentials needed for the journey with them.
Khalsa Punjabi Dhaba, which is located in Hamira, Kartarpur on the NH-1, also opened on Tuesday and but only six odd customers came for packed food. Anil Kumar, the main cook of Khalsa Dhaba, said, “We opened the dhaba yesterday, but could not get any customer. On Wednesday, 5-6 customers came and got food packed.” He added that daily 200 to 300 customers used to visit this place before the coronavirus outbreak.
“Now we are afraid that people will not come,” said Anil, while claiming that they were trying to follow all precautions from wearing masks and washing hands frequently.
Ishfaq, a worker on Sarpanch Dhaba, said: “Some customers who came today were very particular and asked me to wash my hands in front of them before packing food. I have been washing my hands every half an hour.”
It was the same story at Kalsi Dhaba and Punjabi Dhaba located near Kartarpur. Both places had around three to four workers on duty, but hardly any customers.
While Kapurthala DC Deepti Uppal said that district officials and police were checking on these dhabas to make sure that all laid-down conditions were met, Jasvir Mann said that the government should now think about giving some concession to dhaba owners in fixed running expenses like power bills.
“Getting customers during corona outbreak and post-corona would be an uphill task now….If it continues like this, I will have to close it down again. In a situation like this, I will struggle to meet my running expenses and pay salaries. Government should look at giving us some relief,” he said.
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