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Small Businesses Which are Averse to Social Distancing Despair They May Never be Able to Revive Health Again

[avatar user=”R.K. Lakhi Kant” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]R.K. LAKHI KANT[/avatar]

Four hajams (barbers) who pooled in resources to establish a briskly operating haircutting salon at Konung Mamang, Palace Gate Area, are keeping their fingers crossed. Surely, they will need a load of luck to see them through this lockdown, for things are far from normal for them. Pappu, the owner of the business technically, is helped by his nephew Amar and another friend, but it is the suave Manoj Kumar who is able to draw the customers to the shop. Each day they have 80 or so customers divided between them. At any time of the day you can see them busy snipping at the haircuts, giving shaves, dyeing, and giving massage, making you wonder if at all they have any free time. The past two months have, however, put them in a tight spot and it is unsure how they will weather the unfolding predicament of the coronavirus lockdown. They say almost in unison, when asked of the pitfalls they might face in reviving their business, “Nothing is going right for us at the moment. This lockdown has been miserable; we are in so much problem at the moment, what to say of the future.”

Although they are a successful set up by the look of it, still these barbers, all from Bihar, are humble enough to mention that they are like daily wage earners who get their meals only if they earn for the day. And the issue right now, according to them, is that they are unemployed. “What will a hajam do; this lockdown has broken our back,” says Manoj uncharacteristically resigned to fate, continuing, “Nitish and Modi have not done anything for us. And here also it’s all the same. We can take just rice with a pinch of salt if the situation calls for that, but even one kilo of rice has not come from the government.” They have heard of some government measures for small enterprises but though they have paucity of cash, they cannot think of any relief forthcoming for sustaining their business.

The four co-workers set up their shop recently, since they have not yet paid off fully the Rs. 1 lakh loan at 5 percent interest they had taken from a private money lender for renovating their stall and some working capital. They are repaying at Rs. 7000-8000 every month. Now it may take any number of months to break even as they have paid only about 50 percent of the capital. The owner of the shop and living premises may allow the room rent to be deferred but won’t excuse the shop rent, which has posed another hurdle for the four of them, three are without families and one with family. The economic slowdown is certain to claim many victims in the state and it remains to be seen if these barbers will be among them.

The shop is a registered one and an association of barbers regulates their workings, rates they charge etc., but it does not seem to have much to show by way of the obligations it has towards the hundreds of barbers in Imphal, or for that matter the whole state. For their part Pappu and his men will be paying due attention to cleanliness and will now use antiseptic and sanitizers to win customer confidence. However, they feel since Covid-19 has an element of chua-chut (untouchability), in Indian conditions, they were not sure how the customers would respond after the lockdown, in spite of them gearing up to ensure safety. They said the expenses too would rise for water, frequent cleaning operations, sanitizers, disinfectants etc.

Pappu also would be taking up the matter of upkeep of barber shops at the meeting of the barbers’ association expected at the end of the pandemic. They would also be asking their well-off patrons to continue as their clients. Some among these are high-ranking police officers, a bank managers, bank officials, an MLA who comes to them and a senior BJP member who, however, is at the moment stuck in New Delhi due to the lockdown.

Manoj also says haircutting is their occupation and they and their families in Bihar depend on them, although for the time being their families in the villages are being helped by relatives, neighbours and by their state government which is providing some relief to ration card holders. Though they use their earnings of around Rs. 600 a day, to make savings of about Rs. 5000-6000, the past two months they had to borrow to survive. Manoj is also aware they are uneducated and cannot get any other jobs in Manipur if living becomes tougher than usual. There are no big companies which could support people like them, he says, but in other cities it might be, somehow or other, possible to get a non-haircutting job.

Like the barbers, another tea stall owner at Konung Mamang, Krishna said “whatever earnings we had is finished. We are surviving on loans,”. For an eatery that uses 40 kilos of flour to knead hot paranthas, samosas and at least 5-10 kilos of mithais (sweetmeats) daily the suspended animation of the lockdown is hard to bear. Instead of the usual hustle-bustle, the silence and immobility in the shop is testing the nerves of the four labour, two mistris and the two mahajans. Though sales are never guaranteed, every day they are usually left with about Rs. 6000 a day from which Rs. 4000-5000 will go to getting supplies for the next day. The sales also take care of their own daily meals and the payments to be made to the employees. But the expenses right now are burgeoning as they are staying with the bibi-bacha (family) too.

The whole team is raring to have a go with a new outlook after the lockdown, and the eldest among the owners, Ram Naresh Thakur, says he is willing to make some changes like serving customers with hand gloves and face masks on, apart from providing one whole table to a single customer as a manner of social distancing, if need be. However, the team of workers and owners and their families, who are all from Bihar, are not expecting the business to pick up early. There will also be no new employments or changes in the menu to catch customers, according to Ram Naresh who feels the slowdown will continue for at least 2-3 months even after the lockdown is over.

The landlord who is a Muslim from Lilong has provided them a bag of rice and also vegetables but they have to pay Rs. 11,000 as rent for the shop and residential premises. This would be possible only after they start earning something.

Ram Naresh says he has no compelling reasons for worry as he is with his family and it is just like staying at home; but he would have liked to send the boys back to Bihar if the lockdown is to continue for long. There is no point in keeping them here if the situation persists, he says observing that they would only be a liability with losses already touching Rs. 30,000-40,000 per month. The tough part now is to keep the establishment running and for that Ram Naresh needs to take a loan but he is also apprehensive of interest percentage apart from the fear that customers might desert eateries on reopening due to fear.

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