FEATURE-Indian street vendors ‘shattered’ as coronavirus wrecks trade

NEW DELHI, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A stack of unsold shawls is an unsettling sight for street vendor K. Kunjalata Devi, reminding her of the daily struggle to feed her family as COVID-19 threatens the livelihoods of millions of informal traders across India.

India – one of the countries worst-hit by the coronavirus – has eased most lockdown restrictions and sought to reopen its battered economy, but some curbs on street trade remain and many customers are staying away.

That is taking a heavy toll on the nation’s ubiquitous street vendors, who sell everything from snacks and cups of tea to toys and shoes at traffic lights, on pavements or from carts.

“Financially, we are shattered and that has led to a near mental breakdown with stress and tension building up every passing day,” said Devi, 64, who had been selling the handwoven shawls for four decades before the lockdown hit in March.

Devi and several thousand fellow vendors at a market run by women in the remote northeastern state of Manipur have still not been able to return to their stalls because authorities ruled that the many elderly vendors were at high risk from the virus.

“Making ends meet and having two meals a day is now a big problem… life for many of us has been hell,” Devi, the sole breadwinner in her household, said by phone from the state capital, Imphal.

Coronavirus infections are rising faster in India than anywhere else in the world as it repeatedly reports the highest global daily caseloads, with the total surging to 5.4 million on Sunday, according to the latest official data.

It is the world’s second-worst affected country after the United States, which has 6.7 million cases.

The pandemic has also pummeled the Indian economy, which shrank by nearly a quarter between April and June, when a strict lockdown brought businesses to a halt and left millions jobless.

Consumer spending, the economy’s main driver, fell about 31% from the same quarter last year, taking an especially heavy toll on traders like Devi and prompting state and federal governments to scramble emergency aid.

‘POCKET CHANGE’

Imphal Mayor L. Lokesore said the state government would provide 10,000 rupees ($136) in assistance to women like Devi.

“We have already processed their documents and very soon we shall release the payments,” he said.

In June, the federal government launched a scheme offering collateral-free loans of 10,000 rupees to about 5 million street vendors – about half of the country’s total, according to the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI).

Of 15 street vendors interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in New Delhi, only three said they had applied for the loan. Others said they did not plan to apply, citing reasons including red tape or lack of interest in the amount on offer.

“It’s a lot of effort for just pocket change. They don’t realise how much we have to spend on raw material, transport and helpers,” said Pappu Gupta, 50, who runs a food stall near Connaught Place, the capital’s central business district.

Nearby, roadside cobbler Santosh Kumar said: “What’s the point of a loan if people are too scared to come out? Who will I expand my business for?”

Calling street vendors an “inseparable constituent of the urban informal economy”, Rajeev Jain, a spokesman for the ministry of housing and urban affairs, said 470,000 loans had been approved of the 1.3 million applications received.

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

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