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.
Fifty-five year old Gurmeet Singh has been running a taxi service with his three elder brothers in Delhi since 1982. The company, named Guru Teg Bahadur Taxi Stand, started off with just one car that the brothers would take turns to drive within Delhi and across the country when they got a client.
Over the years, the business grew. By 2005, they had around 25 cars and nearly 20 drivers working for them, along with an office and a taxi stand in South Delhi’s Soami Nagar.
But that changed a few years later after cab services like Ola and Uber became more frequently used. By 2020, the business still continued to make ends meet because of tourism but it had scaled down its operations and was left with just three drivers and seven cars.
Things spiraled down even further after the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24 to curb the spread of Covid-19, the disease that has claimed more than 13,000 lives in the whole country.
For nearly three months, streets were deserted because of complete restrictions on movement and suspension of all public transport. This meant that Gurmeet Singh’s operations came to a halt in March, April and the beginning of May. He called it the “worst condition” his business had ever been in.
“We are zero,” Gurmeet Singh said. “There is no work... no client wants to sit with us.”
‘Not saving anything’
Even before the nationwide lockdown was announced, the drivers who worked for Singh went back to their villages in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh on March 18. Singh said he paid them their salaries of Rs 15,000 each in installments for the months of March, April and May.
“They are still at home... they have not come back yet,” he said. “They do not want to come back because of corona.”
Singh said it would not be easy for him to continue paying his staff their salaries if they did not return to work. “It is so difficult for me to pay them now,” he said. “I do not have money to give them... I need it for myself and my children.”
Aside from the salaries, Singh and his brothers have to pay the rent for their office of Rs 5,000, along with electricity of Rs 2,250 and a water bill of Rs 2,500. They also have two more years to pay up for a vehicle they purchased two years back on equated monthly instllments of Rs 35,000 every month.
“We are not saving anything,” he said. “We do not even have enough for our roti-paani.”
‘Delhi is empty’
On May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a special economic package worth Rs 20 lakh crore that offered loans, liquidity and credit guarantees. Singh said his business would be eligible for a loan of around Rs 50,000 and went to the bank on June 10 to apply for it.
“The bank people told me they did not have forms... and this is a government bank,” he said.
Since the lockdown was imposed in March, Singh said he did not have any work or means to earn. Instead, he would leave his home in Malviya Nagar around 8 pm and walk around 2 kms to his taxi stand in Soami Nagar to guard it till 6 am the next day on a daily basis fearing theft.
“Chowkidaari ke liye baithna padta tha,” he said. I had to be there as the watchman.
Aside from spending the nights at his taxi stand, Singh said he regularly frequented the gurudwara in his neighbourhood during the day to help pack 300 cooked meals to be distributed among the homeless and those who were making their way back home on foot.
“Mazdooron ke bina Delhi khali ho gayi hai,” he said. “Delhi is empty without its workers.”
On June 8, Delhi decided to open up malls, markets and places of worship, and the sound of bustling streets continues to grow. But, by mid June, Singh had only one client – a doctor whom he picked up from South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and dropped at National Heart Institute for a total of Rs 400 per day on a daily basis. He charged Rs 11 per km.
“There is business because of doctors or some emergencies... or some newswallahs,” he said. “These people are working otherwise everyone is at home.”
But driving around such few clients was a cause for worry for Singh about the future of his business. “There will be a labour shortage... cash will not come if the car does not run... there is no guarantee if the client will come,” he said.
Moreover, he said that the lockdown did not achieve much either. “Everyone just played politics,” he said.
Read the other articles in this series here.