The idea of maintaining a one-metre distance from people is a concept so foreign in the traffic-choked lanes and bylanes of Old Delhi that residents are amazed that the municipal authorities even bothered to suggest it.
“Has Modi ji or Kejriwal ji ever visited Chawri Bazaar? There is hardly any space to walk, as thousands jostle with each other over these bad roads,” Prakash Aggarwal exclaims from behind a desk overflowing with mechanical parts. Aggarwal’s 43-years old shop, which caters to dealers of light hydraulic machines, is located in Gali Ghasi Ram, where residents continue to work and play, without face masks and seemingly unruffled by the panic over the coronavirus pandemic.
“Business has been slow since last year and we’ve got used to orders getting cancelled. I doubt if this virus can ruin things further,” says Aggarwal’s neighbour Afzal Sheikh, who is a wholesaler of pump sets. Most business owners swing between this cautious optimism and fear of major losses in the densely populated 6.1 sqkm urban ghetto of historical Old Delhi.
Despite the restrictions that have come in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, this bustling distribution hub for goods is yet to shut down. “But it’s coming soon. The market association has called for a total bandh from March 21. It will be disastrous for me if that happens as most of my inventory remains unsold and suppliers are getting anxious over payments,” says Sudheer Jain, a retailer of iron pipes and fixtures in Hauz Kazi.
“People in Delhi like to conduct business the old way. Even regular customers who trust our products, come over to sign the orders in person. Now, most are cancelling their visits due to the virus,” Jain says.
Over in nearby Khari Baoli, one of India’s largest markets for dried fruits and spices, shopkeepers are in a bind over how to deal with the current crisis. “People usually pick up a little bit to taste or inspect. I can’t ensure that they will do so after washing their hands,” says an exasperated Bhajan Ram, owner of a dried fruits business.
In East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, a popular garment market, the streets are empty and quiet. “Things can only go bad for retailers like us when customers don’t step out,” says Balram, the shop manager at the sprawling Oswal Fashion showroom. With workers fleeing to the villages, the cost of labour is inching up and the supply chain has been hit. Daily business, usually pegged at Rs 1.8- 2 lakh this time of the year, has nosedived to Rs 45,000 now, he adds.
Smaller businesses have taken a harder hit. “People tell me, don’t open your shop or you’ll get infected,” says 62-year-old Ashwani Kumar. “Well, it doesn’t matter because anyway I can’t afford to pay back my loans,” says a dejected Kumar, whose hole-in-the-wall shop sells leather bags, belts and wallets. The last lot of these remain unsold as footfall has dwindled.
Across the road, Nafeez’s 12-year-old meat business, Calcutta Meat Shop, is facing an existential crisis. The rumours and WhatsApp forwards have begun to take their toll. “People stay away from non-veg during such times, even though doctors have stressed that consuming chicken does not cause coronavirus. But people are not listening,” he says tiredly, looking around his empty shop.
The party fizzling out
In the posh party district of Connaught Place, the state government’s order to close all food and beverage businesses is making people nervous. “The police have started visiting all the bars and nightclubs, ordering them to shut down. If this place is shut for the next 10 days, at least five of us on weekly wages will be without a job,” says Ravinder, a bouncer at a watering hole.
Others have their own problems. MBA student Ravi is out on his first date with a batchmate. “We managed to sneak out of campus, but half the places here are closing down, while others are jam-packed. I had planned a dinner tonight and this is embarrassing, to say the least,” he says, glancing at his friend. “I want this to be over soon,” he adds.
So does the rest of the world.