It has been two months since HB Shajahan reopened his tool store in the popular Chalai market in Thiruvananthapuram, and he is already contemplating closing down his shop.
“I used to earn not less than Rs 8,000 before the lockdown. But now, I consider myself lucky if I earn Rs 1,500 a day,” said Shajahan, who is finding it hard to even pay the rent for his shop.
As the lockdown regulations eased in early May, the Kerala government allowed commercial establishments to function with restrictions. However, many small-scale traders in the state are on the brink of putting up the shutters, as their businesses have hit an all-time low. The most affected are the non-essential retailers running cloth, sweet, flower, stationery and hardware stores.
K Shaju, a cloth store owner at Palayam Connemara market in Thiruvananthapuram, has not sold a single garment for the past month. “People are terrified to come to the market. We get a lot of customers during this time of the year, especially college students. With the pandemic, we are not even getting one-tenth of that sale,” he said.
To add to the woes of the traders, Palayam market has been temporarily shut after people, who work in the area, tested positive for coronavirus.
Shops that sell essential commodities like rice, pulses, vegetables and meat are performing relatively better as many restaurants, resorts and hotels in the city procure raw materials from these two markets. However, their sales, too, have plummeted since the lockdown.
Usually, the sales for Onam celebrations in the state start by late June and by mid-August. These markets see heavy footfall and small-scale retail shops record maximum sales.
This year, Onam will be celebrated between August 30 and September 2. “I do not know what will happen in this year. We are not even able to take the stock from Bengaluru because of the lockdown. The whole market might come to a standstill,” said Shaju.
Many retailers like Shaju are finding it hard to purchase stock from wholesale dealers in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka because of the restrictions imposed by the state governments.
Established in the 18th century, the Chalai market is one of the oldest shopping streets in Kerala, while the Palayam Connemara Market was established nearly a century later, in 1857. These markets are two of the most significant landmarks of the city.
They were closed on March 23 following the statewide lockdown and reopened on May 4, with restrictions, after a meeting between city police commissioner Balram Kumar Upadhyay and the traders.
However, the small-scale retail merchants continue to take a beating as the nation is going through the fifth phase of the lockdown, ‘Unlock 1,’ where many economic activities have been restored, except in containment zones.
The police have imposed a slew of restrictions in both these markets. They have barricades in many parts of the market, making it difficult for parking private vehicles, which, according to shop owners, has discouraged many customers from visiting the market.
“The police restrictions dishearten the already fear-stricken customers,” said Mohanan Nair, a sweetmeat store owner in Chalai market. Moreover, as the numbers of COVID– 19 cases are on the rise in the state – 2,129 active cases as on Saturday – the government has decided to let these shops open only on alternate days.
However, apart from these restrictions, none of these markets has health surveillance such as temperature scanning. Shop owners from both these markets insist on installing temperature scanners rather than imposing parking restrictions and barricading entrances.
“This is a worrying trend,” said SS Manoj, Thiruvananthapuram District Secretary of Kerala Vyapari Vyavasaya Ekopana Samithi (KVVES), a trade organisation for the welfare of small- and medium-scale traders in the state.
“Soon people will stop coming to these historic shopping streets like Chalai, which sustains the livelihood of many. The government should ease the parking restrictions and ensure a safe shopping experience, following social-distancing protocols,” he said.
According to Manoj, neither the state nor the central government has issued any significant economic revival packages for small-scale retail and wholesale shops, except moratoriums and access to credit. KVVES also said it even wrote several letters to both the national and state governments.
In early February, this year, the first phase of the re-development project of the Chalai market was inaugurated. This initiative involves giving the age-old market a makeover, like SM Street or Mittai Theruvu in Kozhikode.
Manoj suggested that the government should rather use that money towards the betterment of the affected shop owners, who have endured heavy losses since the lockdown. “Despite returning crores of rupees back to the government in the form of GST (goods and services tax) and other taxes, these small-scale shops have largely been overlooked,” he said.
Watch areas near Payalam being disinfected: