Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mumbai teemed with street vendors who provided a variety of services in the city’s informal economy. From ear cleaners to roadside bone-setters, to barbers who used to operate from under the shade of trees — the pandemic has hit the hardest businesses that operate beyond government oversight and without labour protection.
The Indian Express takes a look at what has happened to such workers, who used to add so much to Mumbai’s life.
# Harish Thakur (69) and Latika Thakur (65)
Occupation: Sell corn cobs at Aksa beach, Malad
# Daily income pre-lockdown: Rs 1,200
# Daily income now: Rs 200
For Harish and wife Latika, the beach has been the epicentre of their lives for as long as they remember — at least 35 years worth of sunsets. During the last six months of the lockdown, their little cart was parked outside their house in Aksa village, a 10-minute walk from the beach. It’s been only two weeks that the couple have resumed their daily schedule — arriving at the beach by 3 pm, and wrapping up after 8 pm.
While the number of visitors has started to swell gradually, their business hasn’t picked up. Earlier, the couple wouldn’t be able to spare a minute while at work. “On weekdays, it used to bring us about Rs 1,200 each. On weekends, it used to be much more,” Harish recalls.
They hadn’t imagined that the prevalence of coronavirus would deem their cobs “unsafe”. “Now, we just can’t tell how much we earn. Maybe Rs 200 to Rs 300. People come to the beach but avoid eating or drinking. We have sold about five cobs since morning,” Harish says.
The couple also rent out a crate of mats to visitors at Rs 50 each. Those mats lie in their thin plastic covers for the whole day now.
# Bindu Gupta (38)
Occupation: Sells flowers outside temple at Charkop, Kandivali
# Daily income pre-lockdown: Rs 700
# Daily income now: Rs 300
It was late last year when Bindu was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her left breast surgically removed, she was on a consistent cycle of chemotherapy when the lockdown was imposed. The advice of undergoing two chemo sessions a month at a hospital in Mumbai Central became impossible. “Doctors at the hospital prescribed me medicines. Now, Rs 7,000 a month is spent procuring them,” she says.
When Bindu returned to her usual spot outside Mataji mandir at Ekta Nagar during Ganpati season, she’d been hopeful of reviving her small set-up with her husband. Ganpati festival, however, remained low-key, and the temples haven’t yet been allowed to open.
“I have stopped keeping account of the loss we have been incurring. We bring roses, marigolds and garlands worth Rs 500 now, and cannot sell that much even over two days, after which they can only be thrown in the dump,” says Bindu.
The work that used to earlier run her household now barely manages to feed the couple and their three children. “At least on coming here, I meet people. This alone is a reason to work,” she says.
# Vinod Prajapati (33)
Occupation: Sells sugarcane juice in Bandra West
# Daily income pre-lockdown: Rs 3,000
# Daily income now: Rs 500
The glasses have been replaced with disposable paper cups and BMC has now pasted a small poster on his sugarcane juice cart, which exhorts all customers to compulsorily wear masks.
Before lockdown, Vinod drove cars for Ola and Uber services. The juice cart, which belongs to his father, is now the only way for the family to make some bucks. “I was told to quit by the owner of the car I used to drive. My father had been selling sugarcane juice here for last 40 years at least. While he is now in the village along with the rest of the family, my brother and I returned to earn a livelihood,” he says.
“Earlier, many celebrities and rich people would send their domestic helps to fetch juice. Cars would also stop by. All that has now stopped. People fear they will catch cold. Those who pass through this lane seldom halt to quench their thirst, no one wants ice,” he adds.
The earnings are only 30 per cent of what it used to be. Pre-Covid, during the summer, the little cart used to help the family earn Rs 3,000 at least a day. Vinod now manages to pocket Rs 500, but hopes for the day when normalcy returns and he gets to reunite with his family.
# Avadhesh Kumar Yadav (38)
Occupation: Book vendor at Flora Fountain, Fort
# Daily income pre-lockdown: Sold around 50 books
# Daily income now: Sells around 10 books
Avadhesh was only 16 when he started selling books near Flora Fountain. Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, he lives with his parents, wife and a child at a MHADA flat in Lalbaug. Since having made a comeback to his business in August, the going has not been smooth. The nearly 10,000 books he now sells along with two others in the same stall are now greeted by not more than 10 avid visitors a day. Earlier, he managed to sell more than 50 books a day.
“I’ve begun delivering books to people’s doorsteps. They have my number. I courier them through the post office after receiving advance payment,” he says. This way, he has sold 15-odd books. Despite the lull, Avadhesh is convinced that book selling is a profitable business. “Staying at home took a toll on my health. Here, it’s a good timepass. One is bound to fall ill in the absence of any activity.”
By next year, he plans to make the transition towards online platforms. “Some of my clients have promised to help me reach Amazon and Instagram. Through these platforms, I’ll be selling books all over the world.”
# Gangaram Chaudhary (51)
Occupation: Photographer at the Gateway of India
# Daily income pre-lockdown: Rs 350
# Daily income now: Rs 100
For the six months that Gangaram was home, he kept waiting for the day the Gateway would open. Gateway of India has been his work address since 1986, a 20-minute walk from his residence in Shivshakti Nagar slum at Nariman Point. Mumbai is the only home he knows of, having left his native place in Bihar’s Madhoni over four decades ago. Now, he is one of the several photographers in search of tourists, hoping to click his first picture of the day.
The influx of tourists has diminished, and some days pass by without a sell. “While the Gateway opened on October 3, there is no guarantee how many photos we would get to click. This morning, I clicked several photos of a customer who refused to buy even one,” says Gangaram.
Like earlier days, Gangaram reaches the Gateway by 1.30 pm and stays until 8 pm. A job that earlier guaranteed him roughly Rs 10,000 a month, now doesn’t assure of even him Rs 100 a day.
Foreign tourists have been a great source of income, even back in the days when digital photos weren’t a thing. “The business runs on trust. I’ve sent pictures to Australia, Canada, everywhere.” Despite the state of the business, a single photo is charged at Rs 30. “Rozi roti se beimaani nahi kar sakte,” he says.
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