Sarojini Nagar workers' plight shows how Covid has wrecked Delhi’s popular flea market

The market is open again but it’s far from business as usual.

WrittenBy:Anusuya Som
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The very day prime minister Narendra Modi announced the coronavirus lockdown in March, Ankit Sahu, 22, was laid off.

Ankit worked as a salesman in a shop selling women’s clothes in Sarojini Nagar, one of Delhi’s most popular flea markets. He got a salary of Rs 10,000 a month and made another Rs 4,000-5,000 selling used women’s clothes from a cart outside the shop, with his employer’s knowledge. On March 24, his employer told Ankit the pandemic had reduced their sales to a trickle, and sacked him instantly. He had to remove his cart as well as the market was closing for three weeks of the lockdown.

It could not have happened at a worse time: the country was going into an extended lockdown and Ankit, his family’s sole breadwinner, was left without an income. So were around 1,900 shop workers, including owners, and street vendors who earned their livelihoods in the Sarojini Nagar market.

There are at least 200 shops in Sarojini Nagar’s main market and 120 in the adjacent Bapu market, according to Pramod Sharma, a former president of the Sarojini Nagar Main Market Association. Another 65 shops are scattered around the twin markets. On an average, each shop is manned by four people. That is over 1,500 workers. “The number could be higher by 100-200,” he said.

Then, there are 92 street vendors licensed by the New Delhi Municipal Council and 250 or so that aren’t authorised, said Bansilal Grover, the chairperson of the Tehbazari Welfare Association, which represents New Delhi’s street vendors.

Ankit had about Rs 15,000 saved when the lockdown began but it wasn’t nearly enough to tide over the lockdown. He lives in a one-room rented tenement in Tughlakabad with his father, 60, brother, 14, and sister, 12.

His father worked in a factory that stitched garments for export but lost his job early this year as the pandemic hit international trade. “I was running the household entirely on my own,” Ankit said.

He convinced his landlord to defer the rent for April, promising to pay once he reestablished his Sarojini Nagar cart after three weeks of the lockdown.

He couldn’t keep his promise. “The prime minister said the lockdown would be for 21 days, but then kept extending it,” Ankit said. “I did not know what to do. My savings were gone and I realised there were no jobs available.”

By early May, he was borrowing money from relatives back in his village near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. “I desperately needed work, so I asked my friends and relatives to let me know if there was a job for me somewhere.”

Finally, in mid-May, one of Ankit’s neighbours who works in a hospital told him about a job at a Covid quarantine centre in South Delhi’s Chhatarpur, Ankit said, “I was afraid of taking work where I could catch the infection. But I was desperate. We were running out of food. I couldn’t bear to see my family go hungry.”

He signed up. The job entailed cleaning and sanitising the rooms occupied by people quarantined with coronavirus and taking out their garbage. For this risky work, he was to get Rs 12,000 per month.

It’s over a month since Ankit joined, but he is yet to be paid. He had to convince his landlord to defer the rent for May and June as well. He hasn’t paid water and electricity bills either. He now owes around Rs 22,000 in rent and utility bills.

“I feel scared working in the quarantine centre,” Ankit said. “So, after the lockdown was partially lifted, I went to meet the shop owner in the hope of getting my old job back. But the owner said his situation was bad so he couldn’t give me my job back.”

Radheysham Singh, 39, the shop owner, said he sacked Ankit and his two other salesmen out of helplessness. He had bought fresh stock worth about Rs 13 lakh only a few days before the country was locked down. He did not have enough saved to see his own family through, let alone pay salaries, Radheysham claimed. He had to borrow money from his brother and parents, who live in Jharkhand’s Hariharganj. “I have not even been able to pay my children’s school fees,” said the father of two.

And he would have had to vacate his Sarojini Nagar shop if the landlord hadn’t agreed to defer the rent.

Radheysham was relieved when the lockdown was eased in last month and Delhi’s markets were allowed to reopen. The relief was shortlived. “It’s a good day if I get two, three customers. Most days there are none,” he explained. “I barely do 15 percent of the sales I did before the lockdown. The stock I had ordered is lying untouched in the warehouse.”

More worryingly for Sarojini Nagar’s shopkeepers, the footfall is unlikely to grow until the pandemic eases and metro trains start chugging again, said Balvinder Singh, who has reopened his women’s garments shop on Janpath, another flea market in central Delhi.

Street vendors have it worse. They haven’t yet been permitted to resume their trade by the NDMC and the Delhi government, apparently to prevent overcrowding in markets.

Pramod Yadav, a street vendor, has been working in Sarojini Nagar Market for 15 years.

This has not dissuaded Pramod Yadav, 25, desperate to earn a livelihood, from setting up his cart in the Sarojini Nagar market, where he has worked for nine years. Pramod, who sells women’s dresses and scarves, complained that instead of helping, the government was preventing street vendors from making a living.

He had ordered stock worth about Rs 2.5 lakh shortly before the lockdown started, the bulk of which is unsold. Like many vendors in the market, he stored it under a tarpaulin on a pavement, as many vendors did, only for rain and dust to spoil a big chunk of it. “Nobody will buy the stock now because it has dust all over it,” he rued, estimating his loss at Rs 40,000. He cannot move the stock either. His flat is too small and he doesn’t have the money to rent storage space.

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Pramod lives in a one-room rented apartment in Shahdara with his mother, wife and two children. He had less than Rs 3,000 saved and had to borrow Rs 20,000 from his uncle, after his savings ran out during the lockdown. He is again running short. “If the business doesn’t pick up soon, I will have to borrow again,” Pramod sighed. “What else can I do?”

Newslaundry asked the NDMC when, and if, street vendors would be permitted back in the Sarojini Nagar market. We haven’t received a response yet.


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