Selling vegetables to biriyani: Many in Kerala turn to street vending after lay-offs

At least 7 lakh people have lost their jobs during the initial months of the lockdown in Kerala, with the service sector being the worst-hit.
Prakash with his auto rickshaw
Prakash with his auto rickshaw
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The woman on the road raises a hand, afraid a camera might click and get a picture of her with the vegetables spread neatly across a table. No one at home knows she is selling vegetables on the roadside, so please do not click a picture, she requests. She is at a busy junction of Thiruvananthapuram and with the mandatory mask covering half her face, she hopes no one she knows will recognise her.

COVID-19 had at first cost her a salary cut, then a lay-off and finally she’s been pushed to the streets to make ends meet. She has a daughter at home of school-going age whom she needs to take care of.

“I was working at a DTP (Desktop Publishing) centre before the coronavirus struck. When it did, the boss said business was doing bad and our salaries would have to be cut. He directed me to a vegetable shop that I could help with and make some money. Later they asked if I could take them to the road to sell since few people would turn up at the store. That’s how I am here,” the woman says.

Every few metres of the city, there are people like her, newly setting up shop, selling homemade food or cashew nuts in plastic covers, vegetables in sealed packets for 100 rupees and boxes of various goodies stacked at the back of cars with the hood raised.

Job losses began even before the lockdown got officially announced in the second half of March. In the initial months, the Labour Commission did a study and roughly estimated that seven lakh people in the state would have lost jobs. This was 40 days into the lockdown. “It is an approximate number and includes the migrant labourers who were employed in different fields of work. All sectors had been affected, the least perhaps is the plantation sector. The most affected were shopping centres and establishments, construction sites and the unorganised sector,” says a source at the Labour Commission.

True enough, there are people who had run shops for years, now standing on the roadside with a box of meals under an umbrella. Shanavas’s father has been running a fruit stall in Chalai for decades but after the lockdown, people hardly came to buy their bananas. So Shanavas’s mother and sister began making 30 to 40 packets of biriyanis and meals with rice and curries for him to sell at the Vazhuthacaud junction in Thiruvananthapuram.


“People who ran small hotels and restaurants used to buy bunches of bananas and plantains from us. Four families had depended on that business – my parents and the families of three of their children. I too have a five-year-old and a six month old at home. But with the coronavirus, business has suffered much. My father still goes to the shop but hardly anything sells. So I have taken to the street,” Shanavas says.

On the other side of the road, with a huge banner sticking to his autorickshaw is Prakash, in khaki, holding a large umbrella against the October rain. He had started from home at 7 am and took rides for three hours. At 10.30 am, he goes home and fills his rickshaw with neyyappam (sweet snack) and sells it at various shops. Next, he stacks the rickshaw with boxes of biriyani, meals, tapioca and fish curry – popular Malayali lunches – cooked at his brother’s home. “I began this business a month-and-a-half ago when the COVID-19 situation affected both my jobs. I used to work as a photographer (mostly for weddings) and an autorickshaw driver. I need to pay back the auto rickshaw loan, and the rent of the house that I stay at, with my aged mother who is not well,” says Prakash. After selling off the lunch packets, Prakash takes his rickshaw out for rides till night falls.

Kerala’s service sector worst hit 

Of the nearly 1.3 crore workers in Kerala, 30 to 35% of the people have lost their jobs, and this is mostly in the informal or unorganised sector, says K Raviraman, state planning board member. “We did a study a few months into the lockdown and found that it is the service sector that has suffered the most number of job losses due to the pandemic, followed by the manufacturing sector. The least affected is the agriculture sector. Kerala is essentially a service sector economy, in that 55% of the GDP is contributed by it. Thirty percent comes from the manufacturing sector and the remaining from agriculture,” Raviraman says. However, he adds that Kerala is comparatively better than the rest of India. He points out, “In Kerala, 85% of the total work force belong to the informal sector compared to the 93% in the rest of India.” 

Raviraman divides the impact of COVID-19 into three categories -- the severely affected (service sector), the moderately affected (manufacturing and industry), and the least affected (agriculture). The employment share too is mostly taken up by the service sector - 50%. 

In another kind of classification, Raviraman talks about male dominated work areas versus areas where more women are employed. The fields that women predominantly work in, like plantations, is one of the least affected by COVID-19. This was also pointed out by the Labour Commission.

Women’s income no longer supplementary

Praveena Kodoth, professor of Economics at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, raises a similar point. “In a household when a man loses his job (in the informal sector) - as a mechanic or painter or driver - it is the woman who finds different ways of sustaining the household. Most women in poorer households are part of Kudumbashree. They have taken up a large number of activities in the wake of COVID-19. Apart from making masks, they are also involved in the Health Department's local level monitoring and so on. Women got roped into a whole new set of activities. Women thus back up the households,” explains Praveena. 

Watch: A day in the life of an ASHA worker in Kerala

She goes on to say, ”A fairly large number of domestic workers got back to work and from speaking to some of them, I learnt that a number of men in their households are working much less or have far less steady income than they do. In the context of the pandemic, women's income is becoming far more important in sustaining the household. Previously it was seen as secondary or supplementary. When men are working on a regular basis whether they are contributing or not they are seen as the main income earners. At this point women's income has got greater recognition."

IT professionals, teachers and tourism hit hard

While Raviraman says that the Information Technology sector had not been much affected in the earlier days, the picture changed later on. Hundreds of software professionals have lost their jobs in the wake of COVID-19, says Vineeth Chandran, secretary of Prathidhwani, a welfare organisation of IT employees in Kerala.

“I can’t say the exact number of job losses in IT, but we know of companies that have fired more than a hundred employees together. Some of them reach out to us to help find other jobs,” Vineeth says. 

A software engineer who was unemployed for several months had a stint working at a supermarket before he could land another job.Several techies have also taken to online businesses, selling household items and other materials over the internet. 

Prathidhwani had raised from the members an amount of Rs 1.5 lakh to give away to IT professionals who had lost jobs in the past few months. “We could give Rs 5,000 each to 31 people who had lost their jobs and who still remain unemployed. We could also help a few find jobs through our job portal,” Vineeth says.

Techies at work - an old picture from Technopark / Courtesy - Vishnuprasad / Wiki Commons

Stories of professionals found selling fish or taking to farming during the lockdown got reported in the media. The Indian Express wrote of Krishnakumar KP, an automobile engineer who began working under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme at a village in Pathanamthitta. NDTV spoke to 24-year-old Vineeth who lost his hotel management job in Munnar and began cutting trees for daily wages. TNIE reported that two hotel executives in Kochi ended up selling fish on the road to make a living.

Teachers are another group affected. A teacher at a private school who doesn’t wish to be named speaks of the salary cut that’s been effected since COVID-19 began. Even as the online classes continued, 30% of the salaries remained cut.

In north Kerala, teachers of madrassas took to the streets to sell food items. A madrassa teacher who taught in Palakkad says there have been many like him who lost jobs during COVID-19.

Among the most-hit in the service sector are those who depended on the tourism industry. Taxi drivers suffered much when foreigners stopped coming and tourism itself had to be forgotten for months. “I have been a driver for 13 years. For the last three years I have been riding my own taxi in Kochi. There was an EMI that I had to pay for five years, for the car. For three years I could pay off the loan and run my family of four,” says Sony, a driver hailing from Kottayam.

But once the pandemic struck, no one came to Kochi for tourism. Hardly anyone needed rides within the state. “I must have run three or four rides in the past six months. The banks wouldn’t hear of it. They wanted the loan repaid and we sold all the gold we had. But now there is no source of income. I was ready to try my hand at new things but could not find any vacancy till a kind man – Mohana Kumar – offered me a job at his online fish delivery business. So that’s what I do now,”


The pandemic has forced people to adapt to the difficult times, with a number of them seen on the roadside ready to to try all sorts of new businesses and start afresh in life. Devaraj, a middle-aged man who had worked as a ‘pachakakaran’ (chef) at weddings, now sells homemade ada (snack) and biriyani out of his van under the hot sun. On a day he can sell all 20 packets, after standing from 10 to 5 under a blue tarpaulin, Devaraj is a happy man. “Take home two adas for free, give it to the children,” he says joyfully, at the end of a day when business was good.

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