In 2019, Scroll.in’s Hard Times series sought to explain and illustrate how India’s slowest economic growth in a decade was affecting ordinary people. This followed reporting by Scroll.in in 2016 and 2017 on the effects that demonetisation had on the lives of Indians around the country.
As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, Hard Times now takes a look at the impact of India’s draconian lockdown on individuals and firms from all corners of the economy. Read all of the pieces in the Lockdown Hard Times series here.
After two months of lockdown in Mumbai gave way to a gradual re-opening, Rajesh Mule went back to work too. But there is no hope in his heart. Instead, as he leaves the house at dawn every day, he carries within him the weight of dreadful knowledge: This is likely to be the beginning of the end of his business, and there is little he can do about it.
Mule is a newspaper vendor in Mumbai’s Andheri West suburb, where he delivers papers to residents of 15 middle and upper-middle class housing societies. He inherited the business from his father-in-law 20 years ago, and watched it flourish as new print media publications launched and expanded in the city.
Less than a decade ago, he served as many as 700 homes in Andheri.
“But then online media started taking over, and my clients gradually reduced by half,” said Mule, a 49-year-old, well-built, moustachioed man.
Mule had 350 regular customers on the eve of March 25, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the sudden, nationwide lockdown to slow down the coronavirus pandemic. For a few days, several major newspapers cancelled their print editions. When the printing resumed, all the 15 housing societies that Mule served were terrified of the virus entering their premises through the papers. Mule had no option but to shut shop and wait.
In May, after the third lockdown extension, a handful of Mule’s clients – most of them senior citizens – wanted to get their daily newspapers again. “But I could not afford to restart my business for just 25 or 30 houses, and their building societies did not want me coming anyway,” said Mule.
When Mumbai began a phased unlocking of the city, several housing societies eased their norms, opening their gates for newspapers again. But this time, Mule’s customers began to seesaw.
“Everyday, some people call and ask me to restart their papers, and then call again to cancel because their neighbours are uncomfortable,” said Mule.
On May 8, around half of his 350 clients had resumed subscriptions. But among the rest, Mule was unsure how many will want him back.
“Many of my customers have told me that they are used to reading news online now,” said Mule. “Everything is going online, so I know I am going to start losing the customers I used to have. This business will not be profitable for long, and Modi or his economic package cannot do anything about it.”
‘Expecting a drop’
Before the lockdown, Mule would earn between Rs 42,000 and Rs 45,000 a month through the commission offered by different newspapers and magazines for selling their copies. Times of India – the highest-selling daily in the city – offered a 50% commission on the retail price of each copy, while other publications offered 25% or 30%.
From his income, Mule spent Rs 10,400 to pay wages to four of his delivery “boys”: two college students hired at Rs 2,200 a month, and two older workers paid Rs 3,000 a month.
“I used my savings to pay them their March and April salaries, but for May, I could not pay them,” said Mule, who is aware that his staff relied on their part-time newspaper delivery work to support their working-class families. “Even though we delivered papers for the first three weeks of March, none of the housing societies allowed me to collect my payment after the lockdown began.”
Now that his business is limping back to life, Mule is doing all the deliveries himself, since there are fewer papers to deliver for now.
In Mumbai’s eastern suburb of Wadala, newspaper vendor Shrikant Ayare is doing the same.
“Four of my five delivery boys have gone back to their villages in Maharashtra, and most of my customers want to restart their papers only after the monsoon, so there is very little business,” said Ayare, who lives with his wife and two school-going daughters in Wadala’s Ganesh Nagar slum. Of his 400 customers, 150 have called Ayare back, and he is expected to leave their newspapers with the building security guards.
Like Mule, Ayare too has the sinking feeling that some of the customers he lost during the lockdown will be permanent losses. “People are just reading online now. I will see what happens at the end of the monsoon, but I am expecting a 10% or 20% drop in customers.”
‘Corona gets all the attention’
While Ayare is the sole breadwinner of his family, Mule is grateful for the financial support of his wife, an office superintendent with the Indian Navy who brings in Rs 65,000 a month.
The couple has a son in Class 3 and a daughter who is preparing for her medical entrance exam. “She wants to be a paediatrician, but we are not sure if we will be able to pay for her MD, so we will have to figure it out after she finishes her MBBS,” said Mule.
The two-month lockdown left a dent in his family’s savings, but Mule is aware that his business is unlikely to benefit in any way from the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package that the Prime Minister announced last month to revive the economy.
“I don’t know how much this kind of package will help other people, but the whole economy would have been saved if Modi had given everyone enough time to prepare before the lockdown,” said Mule, critiquing the prime minister for announcing the lockdown just four hours before it was imposed on the nation. “He did the same thing with notebandi [demonetisation].”
Even though Mumbai is now opening up despite a steady increase in Covid-19 cases, Mule claims he is unafraid of the virus. “People die of many other illnesses, but corona gets all the attention,” said Mule. “I will go out with a mask and maintain distance from people, but I am not scared.”
As far as his business goes, Mule is worried about the future but determined to take the inevitable domination of online news media in his stride. “I will work in this business till it is profitable, and then shut it down,” he said. “Then when my wife retires, the two of us will travel.”
Read the other articles in this series here.