It's 8: 10 pm on July 5 in Hyderabad and Mahesh begins the task of shutting down his mango stall set up along Balkampet road. The Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines allow him to stay open till 9:30 pm but he chooses to shut shop early. “There are not many customers after 8:00 pm, so I close by 8:20 pm,” says Mahesh, who has to return the rented cart to a fruit shop owner. “The stall makes Rs 1,000 but my share is only Rs 200. The sales are dull these days since there are not many people on the streets after 7 pm,” he adds.
It has been a week since the guidelines for relaxing lockdown were released by the MHA, revising night curfew timings from 9 pm to 10 pm. Shops and establishments are now allowed to stay open for an extra hour, with closing time extended from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm, but many are choosing to shut shop early.
On July 1, the Hyderabad police forced the shops to close as early as 8 pm, local shop owners say. Some shopkeepers didn’t mind it that night as the customers were few anyway. Some turned their lights off but some stayed open despite police warnings till 8:30 pm.
“There is no point staying open past 8 pm as there are not many customers beyond that time,” says Shiva, a vegetable vendor from SR Nagar main road. It’s 8:20 pm and Shiva hurriedly begins opening gunny bags and packing the vegetables. Shiva lives in Miyapur and has to make it home before the last night of the 9 pm curfew begins. “A few of us load the vegetables in a share auto and share the cost of the journey back home. There are no buses along the route now. It’s best to close early as I don't want to get caught outside during the curfew,” he adds.
‘Four more corns’
68-year-old Miyaz glances along the either side of the Dharam Karam Road and spots the blue and red flashing lights of the Hyderabad city police patrol car on July 3. Miyaz has just four more corn cobs to sell, earning Rs 80 from the sales, before he can go home. But it’s already 8:20 pm and the vendor next to him starts to shut shop. Miyaz dims the tubelight at his stall, waits for the patrol car to pass by, hoping the car doesn't take a u-turn anytime soon, and goes back to fanning the charcoal — but there are no customers.
Miyaz is apprehensive about the police, he says, as until June 30, the police used to be a little harsh with him for keeping his corn stall open past 8:15 pm.
“The police will abuse me, but that's okay, they won't hit me at least because I am old,” he smiles through the mask. Senior citizens like Miyaz are in the high-risk category and have been advised by both the state and the Centre to stay safe at home, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But Miyaz has no choice but to sell corn and try to make ends meet.
“A mango seller got hit by the police for staying open a little late during the first lockdown. It's best not to talk back to the police,” adds Miyaz, as the smile fades.
“Let them come two more times, and then I will close,” says Miyaz, who was unaware that the night curfew timings have been relaxed to 10 pm and he can keep his shop open till 9:30 pm. “I just need to make four more sales and am done for the day,” says the pushcart vendor, as he packs two corn cobs for this reporter. It’s 8:40 pm and there are not many passers-by along the road in this residential suburb.
In this area, only a few stray restaurants operate with their shutters down post 9 pm.
At one of the curry points in the Ameerpet, business has been slow. “We are making fewer dishes and smaller quantities and even then we are not able to sell all of it. There are no students residing in these localities anymore, everyone has gone home,” says Srikanth,* the shop owner at the counter.
Shops and establishments were allowed to reopen on June 8, almost a month later business is yet to pick up for many. The increasing number of ‘To-Let’ boards in the suburb is testimony to Srikanth’s statement.
Apart from a few food delivery executives, not many roam the streets of Hyderabad past 9:30 pm. Most of these executives are a desperate lot, well aware of the risks of coming across the police while making a delivery past 9:30 pm that sometimes stretches past 10 pm, well into the night curfew, despite the low pay.
Delivery executives caught in the night curfew
At a waiting spot for the executives delivering food aggregators near Hot Kitchen in SR Nagar, the usual crowd is missing. The “adda” is now mostly populated solely by Swiggy and Dunzo executives and rival Zomato executives are absent. Many restaurants have not yet reopened even after lockdown and those that have opened are witnessing dismal sales.
A restaurant manager in SR Nagar, Raguram* told TNM that his restaurant has no choice but to break curfew and operate even till night 11 pm to make some sales. “We have to make ends meet, we need some money to buy raw materials for the next day. At this point we are not even making one-fourth of our usual sales. Most of the orders are take-away through apps, those are also very few in numbers,” says Raguram.
When asked how the restaurant manages to stay open despite police enforcing night curfew from 9:30 pm, Raguram says, “We manage somehow.”
“We pay them Rs 200, the policemen on bikes take a different amount, the ones in the car take a different amount. Sometimes they ask for biryani or a bottle of water...that's how we manage the police,” he adds.
The restaurant businesses are barely making any money, but make enough to pay off the police. The food delivery executives often deliver food well past the night curfew deadline, sometimes the police run into them, but unlike the restaurants these executives don't make enough.
“The last order gets placed at 8:30 pm, but often, a lot of orders pile up at the time. Cooking the food takes time and the delivery time gets delayed,” 28-year-old Nagesh* says.
Nagesh claims he was thrashed by the police who were patrolling SR Nagar on Tuesday, June 30.
“The cop stepped out of the vehicle with a lathi and charged at a few of us who were waiting to pick up our delivery orders at SR Nagar past 8:40 pm. I was hit on my left forearm,” adds Nagesh, who went on to make two deliveries, breaking curfew with a swollen forearm.
TNM spoke to several food delivery executives around SR Nagar and Ameerpet locality — not all have had run-ins with the Hyderabad police but they try to avoid contact by following the night curfew timings, even if it means fewer earnings. Swiggy until June 30 accepted orders through their app till 8:30 pm and since July 1 the firm has extended accepting food delivery till 9:30 pm. For food delivery executives, the night curfew relaxation by an hour makes no changes to how they operate.
Kalyan Chakravarthy, a Swiggy executive who prefers to avoid any interaction with the Hyderabad police, says, “It’s best to avoid accepting delivery requests after 7:40 pm. There are fewer delivery boys and so the workload increases towards the night curfew deadline.”
The SR Nagar police inspector, speaking to TNM, said, “We got the order of MHA guidelines on July 1, so on that day alone we may have asked shops to close early but from July 2 onwards people have kept the shops open till 9: 30pm.” When asked about the specific incident of the Swiggy executive being manhandled on June 30 the officer said, “It must have happened before the Central orders came.”
Petitions were filed in June against the Hyderabad police with the Telangana High Court for allegedly using high handed methods on the public to enforce COVID-19 lockdown. Though the Hyderabad police caller tunes claims to be friendly, the Swiggy executives differ.
Swiggy, in their statement to TNM over instances of their executives being manhandled by the Hyderabad police, said, “Since the start of the lockdown and on an ongoing basis, we have been working closely with the police authorities across cities to ensure unrestricted passage of delivery partners while they are on the job or returning home from work.”
The company claims to have facilitated a hotline for quick communication in times of need, delivery partners can report issues they face on-ground through this hotline available on the app.
The call goes to the customer care executive, who some of the executives feel is of no real help.
“After I get thrashed, what am I supposed to do? Call customer care and cry? It’s fine if the police stop us at night to ask for documents, but beating is unnecessary,” says Nagesh, who did not report the instance of his assault to the customer care.
“What will they do after I get hit by the lathi?” he adds.
Swiggy’s hotline, which the executive says is essentially their customer care, says any reports of police stopping a delivery executive is attempted to be resolved by escalating it to the police control room. Sticking to the MHA guidelines relaxing night curfew to 10 pm, Swiggy will provide service till night 9:30 pm.
“If there are items in the order that needs to be freshly prepared, then the delivery time will go past the night curfew deadline and we will run-in with the police here,” says Nagesh.
“This delivery location is near my home and it's a biryani delivery, and not items that need to be freshly prepared, so I won't have to wait outside the restaurant,” adds Nagesh, as he accepts his last order for the night.