Around 6.30 am every day for the past week, Shankar parks his vegetable cart on a spot by the roadside in East Delhi’s Pandav Nagar. In less than half an hour, the frail-looking 44-year-old, dressed in an oversized t-shirt and sporting an overused face mask, quickly empties the contents of the gunny bags he brings from the sabzi mandi and arranges an estimated 70 kilos of vegetables on his cart.
With vegetables ranging from leafy spinach to dusty potatoes, slender beans to shiny capsicums, tomatoes, and brinjals, Shankar hopes to attract enough customers to his colourful display to survive another day in the Covid-19 lockdown.
Before the lockdown that banned non-essential services came into effect on March 24, Shankar was selling Delhi’s most popular breakfast — chhole kulche. Now, he is one among the many erstwhile food cart owners in the local market who have taken up a far less profitable business, that of selling vegetables and fruits, after the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown.
“In just a month of the lockdown, I have lost whatever savings I had. I have taken credit from a friend to set up my thela as this is the only viable venture I could think of in these times. My earnings are less than half of what I was making earlier,” said Shankar.
Like Shankar, 52-year-old Mohammad Ashraf has begun selling watermelons after he had to shut down his stall selling eggs meals.
“This is the first time in 25 years that I have changed my business. My savings were consumed in a month owing to house rent and other expenses. Money from watermelons is just enough to save me from starvation,” said Ashraf, who hails from Sitamarhi in Bihar, and would set up his egg stall on the opposite side of the road where Shankar parks his cart.
The business of vegetables and fruits is proving physically taxing as well.
“The chhole-kulche stall ensured that my working hours were between 7 am and 5 pm. I would return home early and get enough sleep. The vegetable business stretches on for hours, I do not get back home before midnight. I have to leave the house by 3 am to reach the mandi (wholesale market) and get the daily supply of vegetables. I barely get 2-3 hours of sleep in a day. I have easily lost five kgs of weight after this lockdown,” said Shankar.
Then there is 46-year-old Anil Sharma who came to Delhi just two months ago from his hometown Aligarh, where he was a cook at a bakery. Sharma’s brother passed away recently and he needed a better paying job to support his nephews as well. “A salary of Rs 7,000 wasn’t enough to feed nine people. I asked for a pay hike but was refused. Hence, I had to come to Delhi for want of a better income. But the lockdown spoiled it all. I am selling some fruits and vegetables to survive the crisis,” he says.
Sharma hires a rickshaw every morning to transport his supplies from the vegtable mandi.
All vegetable and fruit sellers in the area source their daily supplies from the Ghazipur mandi, which is around five kilometres away from the market place.
The heightened vigilance by the police is another challenge for the vegetable and fruit sellers to cope with. “They strike baton at people in the mandi if we assemble in groups and stand too close. Social distancing is vital but we would be better off if the police did not use force,” Shankar says.
Shankar, who hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district, said he is assisted in his vegetable business by his wife, Rashmi (40), who complains about their landlord asking for monthly rent despite the Prime Minister’s appeal against collecting monthly rents. “This vegetable business is barely enough to support a family of four. I have two children, and the monthly rent of Rs 8,000 is the biggest challenge we are facing. The profits from selling vegetables merely help us to arrange two meals a day,” she says.
As compared to other strata of the society, the government’s effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak by way of the much-needed lockdown has affected the underprivileged section of the population most adversely. Their quality of life has nosedived in the past month.
“Earlier we used to eat evening snacks and include paneer in our diet at least once a week. Now daal-chwal-sabzi (rice, pulses, and veggies) is all we eat. I have four children who are in school. We have even started avoiding chai (tea) altogether as milk is no longer affordable. Sleep time is limited to 3-4 hours. All this has resulted in a lot of stress,” says Rashmi.
The owner of another vegetable cart nearby, Suresh (38), says people like Shankar have increased competition in the market. “It seems as if everyone in the city is selling vegetables and fruits now. This has brought up the additional problem of competition for people like us who have been doing this business for more than 10 years,” he says.
“But Shankar is a friend, he used to put up his chhola-kulcha stall right next to me, there’s no hostility between us, we are all trying to survive in these testing times. We try not to keep the same vegetables in our carts and divide them between us,”says Suresh.
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