The public health advisories in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Burrabazar, one of Kolkata’s largest wholesale markets. Here, the crowds are as thick as ever, street vendors are as numerous and raucous as ever, and but for a few harried home guards and civic volunteers, no one seems to be perturbed that a deadly, highly contagious virus is going around, infecting and killing people by the thousands.
Though streets and commercial establishments in the rest of Kolkata were relatively empty on Friday, in Burrabazar in central Kolkata, which houses nearly 1,000 registered and unregistered shops, and witnesses daily transactions of more than Rs 100 crore, it seems to be business as usual. However, many of the traders here say that despite the crowds, business has been down since the coronavirus outbreak. They insist that the area is crowded only because of the office-goers who pass through it — not because business is thriving.
“Our sales are 90 per cent down since the day the virus broke out in India. Both wholesale as well as retail trading are affected. If people die in the state because of this virus, business will be hit further,” says Ranjit Singh Arora, owner of Maa Kali Traders.
Cloth merchant Shekhar Singh is equally despondent. “I used to sell 150 metres of cloth per day. This has now come down to 25. Business has been hit badly,” he says.
But that has not stopped shop owners who source their wares from the wholesale market from stocking up. “It would be irrational not to stock up owing to any scare. Business is down at the moment, but I need to be ready when it recovers,” says Bapi Tulakdar, coughing into his hand as he does so. The precautions to be taken against the spread of COVID-19 have obviously passed him by.
Some traders say that part of the frenetic activity in the market is due to panic buying. Shankar Agarwal of India Canvas Company, which sells industrial polymers, plastic and tarpaulin, says that some people are stocking up their stores in advance because they are uncertain as to what the future holds. But though many acknowledge that business has been affected because of Covid-19, they don’t see the jostling crowds as a threat to their health and safety.
“Kolkata is the land of Goddess Kali. She will protect no matter what virus attacks,” says a metal trader in his 40s, nonchalantly spitting out gutka juice. Clearly, he is not aware that the state has asked people not to spit in public places as one of the measures to fight the virus.
Ironically, near the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, a landmark near the market, there is street vendor peddling single-use masks for Rs 60 a piece. That seems to be Burrabazar’s only concession to the fact that these are extraordinary times. Traders here are also unanimously opposed to any lockdown of the market. “It is a disease of the rich and rich people don’t come shopping here,” says cloth merchant Singh. “What will we eat if shops are closed and there is no business?” asks Agarwal.
Shop owners reveal that after the Centre issued the ban on the entry of international travellers into India, Bangladeshis, who account for around 40 per cent of the total buyers in the market, have dwindled.
“Footfall has reduced since the coronavirus outbreak in India and it is expected to go down further because the Bangladeshis are now headed home. The business from Indian locals has also been affected due to the panic around coronavirus,” says Mukesh Luthra, owner of a garment store.