The Lead: Impact of coronavirus on hawkers in Kolkata

Last Updated : 30 July 2020, 09:09 IST
Last Updated : 30 July 2020, 09:09 IST

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In this episode, DH Radio looks at the hawkers in Kolkata and how their lives have been affected by the pandemic. DH speaks to Saktiman Ghosh, general secretary of National Hawkers Federation and Hawker Sangram Committee in West Bengal, to gauge the ground situation.

Q: The busy streets of Kolkata are not new to the sounds of hawkers yelling out to sell their products, but as the eclipse of the pandemic began to gain ground across the world. A pall of gloom has descended on those dwelling in the city of joy. Hi, this is Ahmed Shariff and I am joined by our correspondent from Kolkata, Soumya Das. Hi Soumya, how are you?
A: Hi. Am fine. As fine as one can be in such a gloomy situation for West Bengal and the rest of the country.
Q: To give our audience a context, what’s the hawker-market scene like in Kolkata, during the pre-pandemic days?
A: See. If one has to describe it a few words it will be like din and bustle. People pouring in, there is bargaining and sometimes it may get bitter between the hawkers and the customers but it's an amicable atmosphere even if the deal is not struck. Specially ahead of Durga puja places such as Gariyahath and another in Central Kolkata called Esplanade. These places are jam-packed with pre-Puja shoppers...

Q: What has been the financial impact on hawkers during the nationwide lockdown?
A: During the nationwide lockdown only 10% of hawkers selling fruits, vegetables and groceries were able to do business. More than 80% of hawkers were not able to open their makeshift shops. Viewed in the national perspective about 60% hawkers depend on their daily earning (similar to daily wage earners). I have never seen in my 50-year career (in agitating for hawkers’ rights) that hawkers’ are using their business capital to sustain their families. Two hawkers in Kolkata had even committed suicide. Those who opened their shops in West Bengal most of them had no option to close them down again due to lack of customers. If people do not come out and lockdown is not completely over then the situation will not improve. We have seen 50% of people are working from home and rest are going to offices... So those hawkers selling food are in terrible condition. Out of the 4 crore hawkers in the country, 2 crores are food hawkers and in Kolkata, there are at least 1.40 lakh food hawkers. We are appealing to the Centre and state government to provide monthly aid of Rs.5000 to hawkers for at least six months so that they can survive. If the situation does not improve hawkers may take the path of suicide.

Q: Has the unlocking process and the odd-even option for opening shops by the state government been any help to hawkers?
A: The odd-even system was not much relevant as a large section of hawkers are not able to open their shops. Those who live far from Kolkata are unable to do business as they could not travel to the city with local trains not running. For instance, a hawker doing business at Gariahat ( a shopping hub in Kolkata) has to spend Rs. 200 for keeping his commodities at a local godown and bring it to his shop by hiring a porter. In the current situation, most hawkers can’t even earn Rs. 200 per day. Until and unless people are back on the road, transport system becomes normal and most importantly people belonging to the middle and lower-middle-class who buy from hawkers have money to spend hawkers will not be able to live normally. For now, having four square meals a day is the biggest challenge for hawkers. To recover from this situation we have decided to set up a cooperative for hawkers and already applied for registration. We are urging the Central and the state government to start an urban employment guarantee scheme in the manner of rural employment guarantee scheme because a large number of hawkers will need alternative means of employment.
Q: How do you think hawkers will survive in the post-Covid situation?
A: We are trying to make arrangements so that hawkers can sell packaged food and vegetable in a no-contact process and orders can also be given online with options for home delivery.

To know more about the conversation, listen to the podcast.

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Published 30 July 2020, 04:47 IST

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