Street food vendors in distress as Covid-19 keeps customers away

Uncertain lockdowns & closed metro services add to the misery

street food

Snack vendors hope that the metro services would be resumed at the earliest as it would bring back some crowds to the market (MIG Photos)

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and markets still witnessing a lack of regular crowd, street food vendors in Delhi suffer a financial loss like never before.

‘‘I used to earn INR 25,000 per month very easily. During festival seasons, my earnings even reached almost INR 30,000-35,000 sometimes. This was largely enough not only to meet the needs of my family, including my children’s school fees but also permitted us to save some money. But those days are gone. Ever since I have resumed business, a month ago, I have been earning only INR 150-200 per day, or INR 5,000-6,000 a month, which is not enough to even feed my family, let alone meet other expenses. I have exhausted half of my savings in last four months,” says Raja Kumar, a 37-year-old food vendor, who has been selling fritters for 20 years in Lajpat Nagar market, located in southern New Delhi.

Kumar says last four and half months have been the worst for him and his family financially. He lives in a rented house with his wife, three children and parents. This family of seven was supported by Kumar and his wife, who used to work in a salon.

Ever since the Covid-19 lockdown in India, both of them have been out of their jobs and have no regular earnings. Kumar explains that he had to dig into his savings to meet essential needs like food, house rent and medication for his old parents.

In another lane of the Lajpat Nagar market, Binesh Mahto, 30, operates a cart that sells lemonade and water. He says that without any income, he was forced to take a loan from his relative in order to meet his daily expenses. Unable to pay for his room rent, Mahto spent the last three months at his village in Bihar.

“In June, I took a loan of INR 7,000 from a distant relative. I thought I would be able to pay for it as soon as the lockdown was eased but the situation of the market seems unfavourable right now. I am extremely worried about repaying my loan. If the situation doesn’t change in the next two months maximum, I’ll be in trouble. Barely three or four people, among the very few who still shop here, buy lemonades from me. I am thinking of selling my cart and looking for another job,” says Mahto.

Mahto and Kumar are but two of the hundreds of street food vendors in New Delhi whose livelihood depends entirely on tickling customers’ taste buds every day.  Unfortunately, even over two after lockdown has eased, the situation remains grim. Even festivals like Bakar-id and Rakshabandhan, celebrated in the first week of August this year, could not increase the sale of street food in the market. There are very few people shopping in the market since it has reopened and even fewer choose to eat street food from the vendors due to the risk of spread of infection and hygiene concerns.

Pramod Mehta, 62, owns a shop in the Lajpat Nagar market, named ‘the waffle delight’. He has been selling Indian snacks and bakery goods in the market for over 40 years now. He says that he had never witnessed so few people in the market and such a drastic fall in income.

“I have been here for the last 40 years. I have seen this market expand from a small flea market to one of the largest in entire Delhi. I have never witnessed anything like this. During the demonetisation in November 2016, the sale had decreased for a few days, but we moved to cashless payment options and the market became crowded within a month again. But it is a true disaster, especially for smaller vendors as they sell even lesser than me since the market reopened. Risk of infection and lack of transportation like metro has resulted in little to no business,” he explains.

street food in delhi

Vendors say that only four-five people eat street food and almost no one asks for takeaways from them (MIG Photos)

Street food vendors selling Indian and Chinese snacks on their makeshift carts used to attract hundreds every day, whenever visitors wanted to take a break from shopping and relish on economic and delicious snacks. However, the pandemic situation in Delhi has changed this scenario completely.

Even after lockdown has been eased and various public places have reopened, markets like that of Lajpat Nagar, remain almost deserted even during festivals and weekends. As it is located a few steps away from Lajpat Nagar metro station, the metro was the main form of transportation for people coming to shop. But the metro services are still shut, making Lajpat Nagar market highly inaccessible to many people from different parts of Delhi.

“People won’t come to the market as long as metro services are shut. Once the metro starts, I expect a more regular and larger crowd in the market. At least 20-30 people used to eat and even used to get samosas packed for takeaways on a daily basis. These days only four-five people eat and almost no one asks for takeaways from me. I have no option but to sit all day with my bicycle and wait for customers,” says Aman Yadav, 25, who has been selling samosas on his bicycle, in the market, for last six years.

Many street food vendors also complain of their raw materials getting spoiled as sales have dropped suddenly and couldn’t plan in advance. They feel if lockdown would have been announced and imposed gradually over a few days instead of suddenly in mid-March, they would have managed their resources better and planned for their sustenance in advance.

“Suddenly I was told that lockdown was being imposed all over the country and all I could think of was how to sell all that I had prepared and bought raw materials for. All of that got spoilt and a lot of my hard-earned money got wasted. I wish I had been informed in advance about it and I would have bought raw materials accordingly. I would have also prepared for living next few months with no income at all,’ regrets Yadav.

Lack of any assistance from the government, snack vendors hope that the metro services would be resumed at the earliest as it would bring back some crowds to the market. But even if shoppers come back, with consumer confidence in India plunging to record depths, a quick respite is unlikely for street vendors in Lajpat Nagar and thousand others in different parts of Delhi.