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Covid fears keep Tibetan traders away from winterwear markets

As against the pre-pandemic years, when nearly 300 traders from Tibet would visit the Maharashtra capital to sell their winter wear, barely 50 people have set up their stalls this year.

Written by Rupsa Chakraborty | Mumbai |
Updated: December 19, 2021 8:03:27 am
omicron, delhi omicron casesTill date, a total of 40 patients with Omicron variant have been detected in Maharashtra (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Even as the annual winter garment markets in Mumbai are buzzing with shoppers, they are missing the soul of the trade — the Tibetans, a majority of whom have stayed away this year for the fear of Covid-19.

As against the pre-pandemic years, when nearly 300 traders from Tibet would visit the Maharashtra capital to sell their winter wear, barely 50 people have set up their stalls this year.

Chilay Sangmo, 38, is one of the 20 Tibetan vendors who have set up their stalls under the Parel Bridge. Apprehensive about Covid-19, she has left both her children, aged 2 and 4 years, with her in-laws in Hubli, Karnataka.

Showing their photos to The Indian Express, she said, “Last year, we couldn’t come to Mumbai due to the pandemic. We had to survive through farming. Most days, we would eat only fermented rice. So, I will have to sell the stocks to gain some financial stability.”

Since the 1970s, every winter, a group of Tibetan refugees like Sangmo have been migrating to Mumbai to sell sweaters and other garments made from Tibetan wool. Most of them are based in Karnataka.

Chunky Dolakar, 35, who has been visiting Mumbai since 1987 when she was a toddler accompanying her parents, says: “In my childhood, I was in-charge of ensuring that customers pay the amount. We used to look forward to these four months (November to February).”

Expecting a lukewarm response from customers amid the pandemic, the traders have obtained only 40% of their usual stock this time. The delayed onset of winter in the city has further affected their sales.

Before the pandemic, the traders would make up to Rs 10,000 per day with a 15 per cent profit margin. However, now they are struggling to make even Rs 5,000 daily, and the profit margin has gone below 5 per cent.

Another factor that has hit the Tibetans is competition from traders from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh who sell their ware at much lower costs, forcing them to reduce their prices as well.

“The Tibetan wool is produced from Changphel—a highland sheep. They are rich with lanolin which makes it unique compared to industrial artificial wool, which is cheap. The local traders can afford to sell a garment at Rs 200, which we can’t. But customers don’t understand the difference,” said Zhoigar Doma, a merchant.

Another thing that sours the Mumbai experience for the Tibetan traders is racial slurs that they are subject to regularly. “With the start of the pandemic, the frequency of such incidents has aggravated,” said Lhundup, who has set up his stall near CST station.

Most of the traders, though, expressed their gratitude to Mumbai police for cooperating with them this year to help them earn their livelihood. “Most years, the police would evict us but they have been kind this year. They know how much we are dependent on this business to survive amid the pandemic,” said Lhundup.

The Tibetans depend on the profits they make in Mumbai to celebrate the Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, in February.

“Last year, we didn’t have money to celebrate Losar. So, we promised our children that we would come back with enough money to celebrate this year’s Losar. I hope we will be able to keep that promise,” said Rana Pratap, one of the sellers.

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