The usual liveliness in Tamil Nadu's temple city of Kumbakonam is missing. It has been so since the nation-wide lockdown was enforced from March 25.
Over hundred temples in the town were closed for worshippers, even though daily rituals continue to take place. Roads are empty and schools are closed.
Kirana stores and small retailers, which are the backbone of the town, are running out of supply with no way to re-stock.
Retailer and distributors in the town told Moneycontrol that unless movement of essential goods resumes, they are likely to face shortage of food items in the coming days.
At least three distributors said that there has been no movement of goods as most companies have shut down their depots. “By my estimation, the current supply can last for a week, maximum,” said a Kumbakonam-based distributor. Panic buying by consumers, right before the lockdown came into force, did not help either.
The temple city
Kumbakonam is a part of Thanjavur district, about a six-hour ride from Chennai. The town has close to 200 temples under its municipality limit, and is dotted by hundreds of smaller temples – which give it the name 'city of temples'.
Apart from tourism, agriculture is a primary occupation of people, with rice being the primary crop. People of Kumbakonam depend on neighbouring taluks for supply of items, such as cereals and vegetables.
For other essential items such as oil, and food items such as atta and rava, distributors procure it from depots in Salem and Virudhunagar – both couple of hundred kilometres away from the temple city. Some of the materials, such as tomatoes, come from Bengaluru as well.
Before the nation-wide lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami said that the state and district borders will be closed from March 24 to March 31. This led to panic buying on March 23 and 24.
Unlike big stores in cities, small retailers are not used to handling large crowds. They usually operate with just two to three people at best. However, just ahead of the shut down, crowds swelled. “Stores were not able to handle the crowd, and some of them even closed their shutters,” Mathi Azhagan, a distributor in Kumbakonam, said.
“This made it difficult for us to stock up and place orders, as retailers were busy with sales. Then, PM Modi announced the 21-day lockdown,” he said. Azhagan is a distributor for FMCG products such as oil, soaps, handwash and food items, such as atta (wheat flour) and other essential kitchen food items.
Even so, Azhagan had placed an order for 1.5 tonnes of atta and similar quantity of gingelly oil last week. “However, the truck, that carries essential goods, has not been able to leave the depot. So, we have no clue when we will get our stock,” he added.
This is despite the recent clarification from the Centre that both essential and non-essential goods will be allowed to move on Sunday. According to Siva Sailam, an operations manager with a firm that handles delivery of goods, it would take close to 3-4 days to get things moving once they get the circular. “So far, we have not got any official information,” the manager added.
In the meantime, small retailers in the town are already running out of stock. Sumathi K runs her store with the shutter half-closed. “We only have a few items that we can sell, and they are probably not essential right now. Since I am running this shop with my mother, we are unable to go out and buy goods. So, once my current stock gets over, I will close it,” she added.
At least four retailers, two of them who run bigger stores, expressed similar sentiments.
All this will impact residents, who are already worrying about whether there will be enough for the next two weeks.
“So far, we were not worried. But the shop I frequent to is not able to replenish, and we have to now go to the market. This is quite worrying,” said Radha M, a resident. Radha, 60, lives with her husband (70). They live six kilometres away from the market and the only means of transport is a bicycle.
Balaji S (65), who runs a small mess with his wife, said that he has been turning down orders as he was not able to procure enough materials.
“As it is, I have to walk for 4-5 km per day to cater to my existing clients. I won’t be able to manage any more,” he told Moneycontrol.
"Though I need the money right now, I cannot take on more as there is only so much I can carry by myself," Balaji added.