by Ayush Shahi
A dazed panic is all that Madhan can recollect of the night of 24th March 2020. In the aftermath of the now infamous announcement, Madhan witnessed one of the most catastrophic governmental failures in dealing with a national crisis. For him, the consequences were all too real. Closed shutters, empty streets and a bustling street side flower business brought to the ground. The lockdown left him with no choice but to pack up his belongings and make the arduous journey back home to his family, in Bengal. A journey of scorched feet and starvation, with a state unwilling to support his return.
This is not just the story of Madhan the flower-seller; it is also the story of nearly 10 million street vendors who ply their trade in the cities and towns of India with the hope of supporting their families back home. People who form the backbone of a predominantly informal Indian workforce and economy. Their hardships necessitate amplification through stories and statistics to paint a picture of what went wrong.
When the government announced the lockdown and closure of all ‘non-essential’ services, it also termed the livelihoods of all the street hawkers and peddlers across the nation, as “non-essential”. The impact was devastating. Surveys investigating the COVID-19 impact on vulnerable workers have shown that around 60%–80% of workers (self-employed, casual as well as salaried workers without job security) lost employment during the lockdown in April and May 2020. With incomes down to zero, the street-vendor community, estimated to be around 3 lakh in Mumbai itself, was left in a deep crisis.
Their inability to pay costs of living in the city, compounded by fears of contracting the virus, meant that many of the migrant labourers engaged in street vending decided to return to their villages.
Caption: Madhan(left) and Laxman(right) set up shop again in Thane’s neighbourhoods
The heart-wrenching stories of migrant labourers played out in large scale all over the streets of the country. In the anthology When the Mask Came Off: Lockdown 2020, Harsh Mander’s account of Shamim the ‘pheri-wallah’, depicted the abrupt devastation of the life of a hardworking travelling salesman. With no money to pay rent or buy food, and with buses and trains halted due to the lockdown, Shamim and his companions decided that the only viable option was to walk; they had to cover 893 kilometres from Eastern Gujarat to Western Uttar Pradesh. “If we have to live or die, let us at least be together,” were the pleading words of his family. These stories of Shamim and Madhan are evidence of the fact that for them, isolation was not against the virus, but one from their families; engendered by the government’s ill planning in imposing a lockdown. It speaks of souls fractured by the loss of their livelihoods; of a trade that they fear returning to.
Withering Flowers and Livelihoods
Laxman Bera took me over his flower collection — roses, daffodils, carnations, daisies, lilies, orchids, among other beautiful bright flowers — as he described the recent bleak past of his business. He says that in the 10 years that he has set up shop on the footpaths, what he witnessed in March 2020 was unprecedented and traumatising. Laxman runs the shop with his wife and employs two men as helpers; however, with the imposition of the lockdown this entire economic ecosystem collapsed. Due to the day-to-day nature of his earnings, he was unable to pay the wages of the men, and he himself struggled to feed his family. Laxman migrated back to his home in West Bengal, coming back only in the June of 2021. His struggles reflect those of Mumbai’s and India’s flower community at large. The flower sellers of Matunga, for instance, have operated their business in the city of Mumbai for decades. With closed temples and subdued festivals, the extended lockdown had a debilitating impact on the livelihoods of the 500 or so families, all migrants from Tamil Nadu, who subsist on this trade. Praveen Sharma, President of Indian Society of Floriculture Professionals (ISFP) commented on the impact of the pandemic on flower demand, “The floriculture industry is functioning to 20-25 percent of its capacity. These flowers are in demand for marriage ceremonies, functions and festivals. But in the last four months (April-July 2020) the demand is at standstill. Flowers are not essential commodities and hence the trade was at halt during lockdowns. Many farmers and traders are now living hand to mouth”. These observations were certainly what I found at the ground level, with many of the flower-sellers having to take loans to survive. When asked about the imposition of lockdowns, one flower-seller answered, “Lockdowns might be necessary, but the government should think about us as well.” The gravitas of their sufferings requires an analysis of the government’s response to the pandemic in terms of supporting these street vendors and whether they did think about the street-seller community in their policies or not.
On 26th March 2020, the Central government announced a Rs. 1.7 lakh crore relief package to aid the “poorest of the poor” impacted by the lockdown. This included compensation of 500 per month for the next three months to the 20-crore women Jan-Dhan Yojana account holders; and an additional 5 kg grain a month for the next three months for ration card holders. Harsh Mander puts these meagre benefits into perspective — how do we expect the destitute to survive on just two days’ salary and 5 kg grain a month, with no health insurance, in the middle of a pandemic. For street vendors, the government introduced a special liquidity scheme to provide a credit loan of Rs 10,000 working capital; acknowledging the devastation caused by the loss of their livelihood. This, however, ignores that these vendors cannot afford to repay loans when their business needs cash to start. Arbind Singh, national coordinator of the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) argued against the inefficacy of loans, stating that the drying up of cash flows has left street vendors with no money in their hands, and that direct cash transfers by the government instead of loans was the “need of the hour.” This failure of the government to adopt a social welfare system and transfer money to the distressed people has led to a deepening of social and economic inequality across the nation. There is an urgent need for some form of social security for the cities’ migrant poor, in the form of an urban employment guarantee scheme. The bleak reality, however, all points towards an apathetic and inefficient governmental response to one of the largest humanitarian crises in human history.
Conclusion: The Flower Glooms
Caption : Fears of rising Covid-19 cases are a threat to the gradual recovery of these flower-sellers
Madhan sprays his bouquet of roses; flowers sourced by him from the Dadar flower market 30 kilometres away at 3 am in the morning. Recovery has been slow, he tells me, and turnover is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Yet, fixed costs remain high — “We have to pay Rs 900 rent daily to the shop in front of which we set up, irrespective of whether we make that amount back or not.” It is not much help for these flower-sellers that during the lockdown e-commerce has taken away a significant chunk of their market — the lovers and the devotees, young and old alike. Moreover, with concerns over new variants of the virus and rising cases, there are apprehensions among the flower-selling community, “We are always scared now,” says Ashok Patel, a temple flower-seller. The nature of their recent sufferings compels us to ask: is it a fear engendered by the pandemic or the despairing malaise of an uncaring state?
Ayush Shahi is the winner of the Swaroop Writing Competition, 2022.