When he got the news at 7pm on Sunday night, Kailash Choudhry, the manager of Bharatiya Mistan Bhandar, a mithai shop in the heart of Guwahati, immediately alerted his workers. There would be milk to buy, mithais to be made and hopefully, people to feed. “In our [the shop’s] 40-year-old history, never has such a thing happened,” said Choudhry about the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24.
On Sunday evening, the Assam government announced a list of state specific rules for the third phase of the lockdown. Among them, were relaxations for tea shops, ice-cream parlours, restaurants and cooked food outlets, which could open for take-aways. “We got to work at midnight itself,” said Choudhry, who opened his shop at 10 am on Monday.
“We did not make the full range of mithais but a few items — rasgullas, ladoos, paneer,” he said, “Just being here after so long is a relief.”
Choudhry’s respite, however, was short-lived. Forty minutes after he opened shop, a man from the area’s trader’s association informed him that his shop can open only on certain days, in accordance with a roster system. “For shops like your’s, there is a one-third rule in place,” the association member explained. “If you are open today, the one adjacent to yours will be open tomorrow.”
The one-third rule for shops which occupy contiguous areas was announced by the Assam government on Sunday evening. “In areas where there are adjacent shops it shall be ensured that there are at least two closed shops in between two open shops except for pharmacies, grocery stores and book shops,” said a release from the state government. Standalone shops, on the other hand, would be allowed to open.
Shortly after, the Kamrup (Metro) administration, under which Guwahati falls, announced that no shops (except essentials) should open till Monday 12 pm — the Deputy Commissioner was scheduled to have a meeting with markets associations to flesh out the rules.
On Monday, post the meeting, the administration decided that shops would be open only two days a week, as per the one-third policy. The rotation system would have to be determined by owners of the buildings.
However, Choudhry claimed he had no idea. “I might as well keep it shut then. These alternate day rules will not work for mithai shops since we make perishable items. Mithai made on one day can, at best, be had the next day,” he said, “We have done it for 40 days, now 16 more won’t hurt us.”
It is not just Choudhry, confusion marked small enterprises like his through the city. Unsure about what they should do on the first day of the lockdown, many chose to half open shutters and clean their shops.
In Zoo Road, a ‘rice hotel’ and a ‘mithai’ shop which stand side by side, opened up for cleaning. “We heard some things on the TV, but it’s very unclear,” said Pradip Das, who runs ‘Al Pacino’ hotel, which sells parathas and quick meals, for people on the go. “But we still decided to take the chance, let’s see what happens.”
According to Kamrup (M) DC Biswajit Pegu, the administration was as clear as possible in their instructions. “The orders have been clear. We cannot help it if people did not understand,” he said, “But the thing is everyone is desperate to open their shops because the economic toll has been heavy. While we have issued new rules and clear instructions, there might be confusion tomorrow too.”
Surviving the lockdown
In Uzan Bazar area, a few tailors opened their shops too. Among them was Motiur Raham, who has been stitching ladies’ blouses for two decades. Earlier in the morning, Rahman called all his customers asking them to pick up their pending orders between 10 am and 5 pm. “I don’t expect new customers, but at least I will get money if the old ones come up and pick up their things,” he said, while ironing a blouse, “One month — and all my savings have dried up. But I suppose, there is nothing to be done. Imagine something so tiny, which we can’t even see with our own eyes, has turned our lives upside down.”
While the lockdown has spelled doom for many like Rahman, Pankaj, an apparel-store worker in the city’s Silpukhuri area, is trying to think on his feet. Two days ago, the 34-year-old set up a temporary mask stall by the road with permission from the authorities. “I had no choice. I have a family to take care of,” he said.
“While I am getting half my salary since the shop is closed, the chai-pani kharcha comes from this stall. Sellings masks, I have earned about Rs 150 a day,” he said, adding that he sold eggs too, because “in a lockdown, who knows what people might need when”.
Near him, S Dutta, who owns a hardware store his father established in 1960, had a bleaker view of things. “I have opened it today, but according to the rules, it will close again tomorrow. There is really nothing to be happy about. We might as well keep it closed, because this is a business model that doesn’t suit us at all,” he said.
The new normal
Assam’s COVID-19 numbers have been relatively low, when compared to other parts of the country. Till date, the state has reported 42 cases of COVID-19, nine of which are active. A total of 29 of the state’s 33 districts are in the ‘green’ zone, while the remaining four are in the ‘orange’ zone. Despite these numbers, the state has decided to tread cautiously, with restrictions that are more stringent than the centre’s guidelines.
A 6 pm to 6 am curfew is in place across the state. While things wrapped up before 6 pm, the day saw considerable movement as cars and pedestrians took to the road. “More than necessary,” observed Sabita Kalita, who owns a grocery shop in the city’s Uzan Bazar area, “Because I sell essential items, I was allowed to keep my shop open throughout the lockdown. Every day felt like a Sunday but today it is definitely a big change.”
Among the many who had come out was a man named Abani Sarma, and his daughter. “I have come almost 30 km to meet my mother,” he said, at Choudhry’s mithai shop in Chandmari, buying rasgullas, “She has help, of course, but it is just strange not to see her for so long.”
While Sarma had his own car, a little away from him, sat 60-year-old Biroja Das, on her haunches. “I have waited two hours and haven’t been able to catch even one,” she said. When the lockdown was announced, Das was visiting her daughter and son-in-law, and now was eager to go back home to Jalukbari, at the other end of the city. “Whoever can push the hardest, gets a seat, it seems,” she said, finally deciding to go back to her daughter’s house because “an auto or a taxi” was something she just “could not afford.”
In other areas too, city buses, which had been directed to run at 50 per cent capacity, saw considerable crowds, as commuters jostled to get on to the vehicle. “All social distancing has gone for a toss,” said a man, at another bus stop, hopeful to catch a bus to work.
While autos and app-based taxis started their services, the takers have been few. In the city’s Ganeshguri area, two app-based taxi drivers have parked their cars, to discuss their business for the day. “We have only had three ride, and it’s nearly 2 pm,” said Pinku Ghosh, who decided that he will only allow customers with masks to ride in his taxi. “Two women came into my cab without a mask this morning but I told them point blank that I won’t take the risk,” said Ghosh, “The rules state that people have to be wearing masks. I have lost enough business, and I can’t take any more chances,” he said.
The two women then went home to get their masks. Satisfied, Ghosh started the trip.