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Lockdown anniversary 2: With business picking up, Delhi’s traders are cautiously optimistic

While they are happy to see large crowds thronging markets again, the business community wants the government to give them tax relief or a waiver in the penalty for defaulting on dues.

March 12, 2022 / 07:11 AM IST
Nearly two years after an unprecedented lockdown triggered by Covid-19’s first wave, the crowds are back in Delhi’s popular markets. (Photo: Shubhangee Vyas via Unsplash)

Nearly two years after an unprecedented lockdown triggered by Covid-19’s first wave, the crowds are back in Delhi’s popular markets. (Photo: Shubhangee Vyas via Unsplash)

Mahesh Kumar, a readymade garments dealer in south Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar Market, is upbeat. So is Mohammed Javed, a seller of electronics goods in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

Nearly two years after an unprecedented lockdown triggered by Covid-19’s first wave in 2020, and a series of further disruptions in 2021 and 2022, the crowds are back in Delhi’s popular markets, injecting a buzz in the business, as well as a sense of cautious optimism.

If all goes well, and if there is no further disturbance, it should be business as usual in a couple of months, traders believe. The backlog and losses, however, will take a year or two to clear, depending on the category, they say.

“It feels good that buying has picked up. We hope for the best. Just pray there is no further disruption or Covid wave. We have had enough,” Kumar said with a smile as he handed over a packet to a customer.

Echoing his thoughts, Javed added: “If this trend continues, we will race towards better days and hope to recover the losses soon.”

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Triple whammy

Two years ago, on March 24, 2020, India had declared its first nationwide lockdown, which was extended in phases till May 31, to check the spread of the new coronavirus. Only certain essential categories were allowed to operate.

In the latter half of 2020, when cases gradually declined, the government started the unlocking process, which began from June 1 to October 31.

Life was slowly limping towards normalcy when, in April 2021, the devastating second wave struck, forcing another wave of lockdowns.

The third wave triggered by Omicron in December 2021 till March this year also led to partial restrictions. In Delhi, weekend lockdowns, night curfews, restricted timings for shops, a cap on seating in cinema halls and restaurants were enforced. The curbs were lifted only recently.

While all of this had had a crippling effect on businesses across categories, small and medium traders found it particularly hard to sustain and survive.

“The first Covid lockdown brought us down to our knees. The second wave crippled us and then came Omicron. It was one blow after the other before we could recover,” said Ashok Randhawa, president of the Mini Market Association at Sarojini Nagar.

Businesses hammered

Traders at Sarojini Nagar explained how the shutdowns and restrictions affected small retailers like them. They bought goods on credit but could not pay up as business was down and this affected the trading cycle.

“Wholesalers were ready to give us time for the pending amounts, but they wanted full payment for present transactions. We spent our savings to sustain ourselves. It was really tough,” Kumar said.

A popular destination for budget shoppers, the Sarojini Nagar Market in south Delhi – located in the middle of a government housing colony now being redeveloped – has everything from low-cost garments and decorative items to home decor goods such as cushions, cushion covers, paintings and fancy lamps.

Randhawa said the wedding and festive seasons were affected by restricted timings. People started working from offices but shops had to shut by 8 pm, which meant they had to start packing up from 7 pm, he explained.

“Customers would come in the evening as they had to attend offices in the day but by then it was closing time. Plus, there were the weekend shutdowns. We lost many customers in the process,” Randhawa said.

Traders at the wholesale hubs at Chandni Chowk, Chawri Bazar and Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi had similar stories to share.

“The business graph kept on changing. There was a huge low, a slight rise, low again and so on and so forth,” said Sanjay Bhargava, president, Chandni Chowk Market Traders Association.

The traders explained how many from their community died of Covid and lost their near and dear ones. They found it hard to pay salaries to staff, savings dwindled and stocks got damaged. “This was something we never experienced before,” said a trader at the dry fruit market in Khari Baoli.

Most businessmen across markets complained how they had to pay recurring expenses such as shop rent, GST, house tax and electricity bills even though they had almost zero income for five months.

According to Ashwani Marwah, general secretary of the Lajpat Nagar Traders’ Association, many had to shut shop or look for other professions, mainly those on rent, as they could not reach an understanding with their landlords.

There are nearly 1,000 shops in the Lajpat Nagar Central Market, selling everything from bangles to saris, shoes, women’s apparel, cosmetics, readymade garments and street food.

A garment seller who runs a small kiosk at the market recalled how he and a few others were forced to sell vegetables and groceries to run their families. “This was the story across Delhi,” he said.

Traders at the Sarojini Nagar and Sadar Bazar markets, which were in the news for viral photos of huge crowds, said there was a sudden spurt in business during the festive seasons but the recurrence of Covid cases put a spanner in the works.

Electronics hubs such as Nehru Place and Gaffar Market at Karol Bagh were better off as work from home spurred demand for computers and smartphones and these markets were never out of business.

Many in these markets, however, said online marketplaces took away a chunk of their revenue as people preferred to order from the safety of their homes. This held true for all sectors.

According to a report titled ‘How India Shops Online 2021’ by consulting firm Bain & Co, with Flipkart, India’s e-retail market saw 25 percent growth in FY21 despite the lockdown and multiple prolonged disruptions in regional pockets.

Cautious optimism

Now that Covid is waning, at least for the time being, and restrictions have been removed across India, including Delhi, the business community hopes for a faster turnaround in its fortunes.

At Sarojini Nagar, there was hardly any space to walk, as shoppers thronged the market even early on a Saturday morning when this writer visited the market.

The scene was no different at the Lajpat Nagar Central Market, as well as the posh South Extension I and II markets with their glitzy showrooms, central Delhi’s Karol Bagh (one of Asia’s largest markets), or Old Delhi’s wholesale hubs.

Marwah said customer flow was back at Lajpat Nagar after restrictions were removed and cases went down. “There is a buzz in the market; things are back on track and we hope for the best.”

According to traders, if sales continue like this, it will take care of their running expenses and profits. Many said daily was nearing the pre-Covid level.

“Our daily sales are expected to match pre-Covid days in a month or two,” Marwah said.

Atul Bhargava, president of the New Delhi Traders’ Association, which represents shop owners in the high-street shopping hub Connaught Place, said people are moving about freely and confidence is returning. “We hope things will be normal in terms of daily sales in the next two-three months.”

But recovery may differ from sector to sector. For example, hotels and restaurants may take a little longer, traders explained. “To be on the safer side, we hope for normalcy by Diwali if there are no more disruptions,” Bhargava said.

The traders said they had spent money from their savings to sustain and pay staff and so are looking at redeeming that amount and then building a corpus for expansion and other needs.

According to Sanjay Bhargava, during the 2020 and 2021 festive seasons, there was a boost in business but it wasn’t enough to level off losses. “We are still 40 percent behind. Now, business is moving again. If this continues, we will be able to recover fully.”

Hotel hubs open

At Paharganj, Delhi’s favourite haunt for backpackers and low-budget travellers, or Karol Bagh and Mahipalpur, both hotel hubs, tourists are back. Hotels are reporting higher occupancy compared to when restrictions were in place or during the Covid waves.

Hoteliers said local tourists started coming in after restrictions were eased across the country and multiple states did away with the requirement of RTPCR tests on entry after the Omicron wave abated.

“It’s not like pre-Covid, or normal, but business is slowly picking up and people are coming in. Paharganj is not deserted anymore,” said Pradeep Kumar of Hotel Grand Uddhav.

Backpackers from abroad, who account for a big chunk, are mostly missing. But local tourists are filling the void to a great extent, a hotel manager said.

Restaurants at Connaught Place, Khan Market, Hauz Khas Village and Defence Colony are also seeing patrons return.

Demand for relief

The business community wants assistance from the government in the form of relief in taxes or a waiver in the penalty for defaulting on dues.

Traders are in dire straits as their balance sheets are in the red, said Yogesh Singhal, chairman, The Bullion and Jewellers’ Association, Chandni Chowk. “The government should take a lenient view and waive the interest and penalty.”

Atul Bhargava of NDTA said traders had backed the government through all the restrictions and lockdowns but never got any support in return. “This was the time when the government should have shown some empathy for us.”

Marwah said traders had requested for relief in trade licence fees, commercial house tax and electricity charges for the lockdown period, when shops were shut, but got no relief.

Many had taken loans to keep their homes going and face an uphill task repaying them. “So, it is a huge task ahead even if we are back to normal,” explained a garment seller at Karol Bagh, summing up the mood of all traders.

Nilutpal Thakur is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi