There’s this guy who sells Bhelpuri off a cart that he usually stations at the street corner 100 metres from home. His wife (I think) sells platters of cut fruit from another (taller, and covered) cart stationed next to him.
I don’t have any particular fondness for them. I’ve never bought cut fruit platters, for example (I’m told by multiple people that I’m not part of the target segment for this product). I have occasionally bought bhelpuri from this guy, but it isn’t the best you can find in this part of town. Nevertheless, every afternoon until mid-March he would unfailingly bring his cart to the corner every afternoon and set up shop.
He has since fallen victim to the covid-19 induced lockdown. I have no clue where he is (I don’t know where he lives. Heck, I don’t even know his name). All I know is that he has already suffered a month and half of revenue loss. I don’t know if he has had enough stash to see him through this zero revenue period.
The lockdown, and the way it has been implemented, has resulted in a number of misalignments of incentives. The prime minister’s regular exhortations to businesses to not lay off employees or cut salaries, for example, has turned the lockdown into a capital versus labour issue. Being paid in full despite not going to work, (organised) labour is only happy enough to demand an extension of the lockdown. Capital is running out of money, with zero revenues and having to pay salaries, and wants a reopening.
Our bhelpuri guy, running a one-person business, represents both capital and labour. In fact, he represents the most common way of operating in India – self employment with very limited (and informal) employees. Whether he pays salaries or not doesn’t matter to him (he only has to pay himself). The loss of revenue matters a lot.
The informality of his business means that there is pretty much no way out for him to get any sort of a bailout. He possibly has an Aadhaar card (and other identity cards, such as a voter ID), and maybe even a bank account. Yet, the government (at whatever level) is unlikely to know that he exists as a business. He might have a BPL ration card that might have gotten him some household groceries, but that does nothing to compensate for his loss of business.
If you go by social media, or even comments made by politicians to the media or even to the Prime Minister, the general discourse seems to be to “extend the lockdown until we are completely safe, with the government providing wage subsidies and other support”. All this commentary completely ignores the most popular form of employment in India – informal businesses with a small number of informal employees.
If you think about it, there is no way this set of businesses can really be bailed out. The only way the government can help them is by letting them operate (even that might not help our Bhelpuri guy, since hygiene-conscious customers might think twice before eating off a street cart).
One friend mentioned that the only way these guys can exert political power is through their caste vote banks. However, I’m not sure if these vote banks have a regular enough voice (especially with elections not being nearby).
It may not be that much of a surprise to see some sort of protests or “lockdown disobedience” in case the lockdown gets overextended, especially in places where it’s not really necessary.
PS: I chuckle every time I see commentary (mostly on social media) that we need a lockdown “until we have a vaccine”. It’s like people have internalised the Contagion movie a bit too literally.