Covid-19, farmers’ stir take a toll on highway dhabas

Highway dhabas wait for customers, count their losses as Covid-19 and farmers’ stir take a toll

The stretch of National Highway 44 that makes it way from Delhi to Haryana, Punjab and thereon to Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir is famed for its many eateries

Representative image. Credit: iStock photo.

The highway much-travelled is now the road hardly taken and scores of dhabas along the Delhi-Punjab route that once buzzed with truckers, tourists and others say their earnings are down by up to 90 per cent – done in by the coronavirus pandemic and now the 22-day farmers’ protest.

The stretch of National Highway 44 that makes it way from Delhi to Haryana, Punjab and thereon to Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir is famed for its many eateries, necessary pitstops not just to stretch your legs but also to tuck into paranthas, ‘dal makhani’ and steaming cups of tea. But the road ahead is uncertain, putting a question mark on the future of the establishments and hundreds of employees who work in them.

Several dhaba owners along the route said their earnings have reduced drastically with thousands of farmers occupying a 10-12 km stretch of the highway, starting from the Singhu gateway out of the national capital, as they demand a repeal of the Centre’s new farm laws.

“Do you see anyone here? The situation has been the same since November 26, when farmers arrived at the Singhu border,” said Sanjay Kumar Singh, pointing to the vast expanse of his Rasoi Dhaba.

"We thought the farmers' protest would last two-three days. Now, we don't know how long it will continue. Our earnings have reduced by over 90 per cent. It will be difficult to pay full salaries... I cannot even send my workers home," Singh said as his employees stand in a circle around him.

The huge, yellow-red hoardings of Rasoi Dhaba, a landmark along the Delhi-Karnal highway, are hard to miss. On another day, in what now seems a distant past, the place would be bustling with activity. Today, it’s mostly empty and the stoves in the kitchen are off.

Four people sit in a distant corner of the 150-seater restaurant spread over one acre.

"They are farmers. They come to sit for a while or use the toilets," Singh said.

The restaurant employs around 60 workers belonging to different states and the salary bills amount to Rs 5 lakh a month.

Singh is worried and so are his workers, wondering how they will manage if they don’t get their wages.

"First, it was coronavirus. Now, the farmers'' protest. This has been a terrible year," said Gopal Bhim, 37, a worker from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh.

The langar, the community kitchens that have come up at the protest site to feed the farmers, have taken the place of dhabas, he said.

The highway continues, winding, long and mostly empty and there are many other eateries like Rasoi Dhaba that is now eerily quiet. The story of uncertainty, for employers and employees, turns many pages further down the road.

About 3.5 kilometres away, Dhaba Bollywood is also empty. In another year, in another time, days leading up to Christmas and New Year would be occasion to string up fairy lights, rustle up some special dishes and even organise live music.

"There is nothing this year. It’s a cold, quiet place now," said its manager Raj Kumar Dahiya.

His earnings have reduced by 70 per cent and the number of employees has come down from 125 in March, when the nationwide lockdown started, to 50 now.

"Our customers are those who travel to Delhi from Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. The road is closed now. The traffic is being diverted from Bahalgarh village in Sonepat," he said.

"First, it was Covid-19. Now, it is the farmers'' protest. It has been tough."

Notwithstanding his economic woes, Dahiya said he is also a farmer and the protesters should get their due. No injustice should be done to anyone.

The empathetic tone carries forward at Golden Hut, about 10 km from Singhu, where tractor-trolleys fill the parking area. The roadside restaurant, which has opened its toilets for farmers to use, has been incurring losses since it was inaugurated in June and sales are now down by 50 per cent.

“Covid-19 messed up our start. We were barely back on the track that the agitation started,” General Manager Sachin Kapoor said. The farmers, he said, can rest at his premises and even get a discount on meals.

Not far away is Balaji Ka Dhaba, which has had to shut its kitchen.

As his staff stands in a group watching television, the owner, Chetan Prakash, said there is barely any work and they spend their time cleaning and talking to policemen deployed to maintain law and order.

Prakash said he has been running the restaurant on a rented property for 13 years and 10 of his employees come from other states, including West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, and he may have to send them back home.

"Zero," he said when asked about his earnings since November 26.

He will manage to give salaries for December but will have to introduce cuts.

His despondency finds an echo in Murthal, dominated by eateries on both sides of the highway that are famous for their stuffed paranthas and frequented not just by travellers but also those who drive down from Delhi just for a meal.

Amrik Singh who runs the Amrik-Sukhdev dhaba said the number of customers has been steadily dipping since the farmers’ protest began.

"People feel uncertain about the situation. They have changed their plans about trips to the hills due to farmers'' protest,” Singh said.

Ravi Kumar, 62, was a frequent weekend visitor, driving down from Delhi for a day out in the ‘country’.

“When the situation improved and Covid-19 restrictions eased, my wife and I planned a weekend lunch at a dhaba in Murthal in September. But then came news that many workers at a couple of eateries there had tested Covid-19 positive and we shelved our plan,” he said.

“We planned a trip to Shimla for mid-December and intended to have lunch either at Murthal or Karnal, but again we had to postpone our plans due to the farmers’ stir,” he added.      Lekh Raj, the manager at Mannat Haveli, another well-known Murthal eatery, said they were hoping for a turnaround in business hit by Covid-19 but that hasn’t happened.

At Zhilmil dhaba, the manager said their only new customers are farmers travelling to the protest site near Delhi and those returning home after spending at few days there.

“We hope this issue gets resolved soon because already the Covid-19 thing earlier this year has badly hit trade,” he says.

Farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping at various border points into Delhi in their push for a rollback of the three farm laws, which they say will eliminate the safety cushion of MSP and do away with the mandis, leaving them at the mercy of big corporates.

Enacted in September, the laws have been projected by the government as major reforms in the agriculture sector that will remove the middlemen and allow farmers to sell anywhere in the country.