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Across India, how coronavirus has hit small business owners, traders

Across India, how coronavirus has hit small business owners, traders

Businesses across India are slowly beginning to feel the pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the Traders' body Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) had written to India's trade minister Piyush Goyal, asking him to assess the impact of coronavirus, particularly on small traders and businesses in the country.

For a state bruised by the long-term effects of GST, demonetisation and back-to-back floods, the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on Kerala is likely to be huge. The state's finances are already in bad shape. As a result of the partial lockdown in the state and the public being advised to practice social distancing measures, traders are staring at an unpredictable future.

In the financial hub of Kochi, malls, hotels, restaurants, business establishments, small and large shops have taken a big hit. Cinema theatres and multiplexes have been ordered to down shutters till March 31. Drivers with internet cab aggregators have also reported reduced passenger demand. As many companies have enforced work-from-home policies for their employees, there are fewer private vehicles on the roads.

P C Jacob, Ernakulam district president of the influential traders' collective Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi (KVVES), said an unprecedented crisis looms large for the trading and business communities in the state. "The trading scene is lifeless. Small-time shopkeepers have taken the biggest hit. People are not stepping out of their homes and they have reduced their consumption capacity. What will the shopkeepers do? How will they pay their bank loans and rent? How will labourer salaries be met?" According to Jacob, neither the state government nor the Centre have announced any special packages for small business owners.

Liquor sales are an important source of revenue in Kerala, and the state government has resisted closing bars and retail outlets, despite risks of community transmission of coronavirus. On Wednesday, the cabinet decided that bars and pubs will remain open in the state, albeit with precautionary measures.

Contrary to how the COVID-19 outbreak has contributed to a dip in sales for most business-to-consumer establishments in the country, in Bangalore, some business-to-business establishments have seen an unprecedented demand for staples. For instance, METRO Cash & Carry India, a wholesaler which caters to traders, hotels, restaurants, caterers, offices, and institutions, has witnessed a surge in the sales of essential commodities such as rice, flour, vegetables, fruits and dal.

"Our team is proactively monitoring and educating our business customers that we are maintaining health and hygiene as advised by Bengaluru's local civic body (BBMP) and hence there is no need for panic-buying as the store will remain open and will continue to offer food and groceries," a METRO Cash & Carry India spokesperson told indianexpress.com. The company also said it was taking necessary precautions and preventive actions for the well-being of customers and employees at the store.

In Chennai, Ritchie Street, the electronic grey market hub which hosts more than 2,500 shops barring roadside vendors, has been facing an unprecedented crisis amid the outbreak of coronavirus. Shopkeepers complained that goods are lying in godowns and they are unaware of when the situation will return to normalcy.

The market which depends heavily on the import of products like TVs, laptops, mobile phones, gaming consoles, air conditioners, refrigerators, and IT hardware products from China and South Korea has been severely hit due to the coronavirus epidemic. There has been a drop in demand too since the state has gone under lockdown, with customers staying home and prioritising stocking up on essentials like groceries over traveling.

"Since flights are canceled, the new shipments have not reached the market. The local dealers have started stocking the goods but customers are not turning up to buy (them). The footfall has drastically reduced," said Sunil Handa, the chairman of Ritchie Street Market Association. "But whatever the customer is doing is the right thing to do at this stage. Safety comes first, you can buy the product whenever you wish."

Handa said local manufacturing which depends on Chinese spare parts for assembling these goods have been the worst affected. "If you take an LED TV, the panel comes from China, (and) the rest of the parts are assembled here. So without the main parts which are imported from other countries, the manufacturers cannot sell a finished product to the dealers," explained Handa. "About 50 per cent of goods in the market are imported from China. We are waiting for the Indian manufacturers to develop similar products that we import from other countries. We would love to buy from Indian manufacturers provided the product is of superior quality."

On March 15, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapaddi K Palanisamy had ordered the closure of all commercial establishments until the end of the month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With textile showrooms and other big commercial establishments in the city shut, employees have been caught in a dilemma regarding whether to go back to their hometowns or to stay in the city.

"My company told me they are going to shut down the shelters for the next 15 days. There are lakhs of employees on Ranganathan Street like me who don't know what to do, how to feed their families," said a worker of a popular textile showroom in the city that provides employees accommodation near the shops. "If it is a day or two it is fine. But how can we survive if our source of income is stopped for more than 10 days?"

Even before West Bengal recorded its first COVID-19 positive case yesterday, footfall in malls and other public places in Kolkata had drastically reduced over the past few weeks. Although local markets are at present open, buyers are few. This past week, the West Bengal government ordered the closure of schools, universities, cinema halls and auditoriums till March 31 to prevent gatherings of large crowds. "Regardless of what the government says, shops will remain open and prices will not change. Is whatever the government says right?" asked Shishir, a fruit-seller in Jadubabur Bazar in Bhawanipur, one of the largest local markets in Kolkata.

(Inputs and image from theindianexpress.com)

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