Travelling traders say they can't survive another wave as pandemic decimates local fairs

Travelling traders say they can't survive another wave as pandemic decimates local fairs

Travelling traders say they can't survive another wave as pandemic decimates local fairs

The latest blow to their businesses was the cancellation of the mega handicraft fair in Rajasthan over the recent spike in COVID-19 infections.

Hanumangarh: “When state governments began easing restrictions after the spread of COVID-19 infections began to slow down, I thought that I would be able to bring my business back on track. But the recent spurt in cases has shattered my hopes. I fear that soon there will be another lockdown,” said Sudhir Kumar, who hails from Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh and makes a living by selling teddy bears at trade fairs organised in different states.

We met Sudhir in December at his shop at a recent trade fair held in Sangaria town in Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan. He said that unless the rate of infections dropped soon, he would never be able to revive his business that was battered by the first two waves of the pandemic.

Small-scale traders like Sudhir, who earn their livelihoods by setting up shops at trade fairs in small villages and towns across the country, are now staring at the horror of fresh waves of the pandemic and impending lockdowns.

After a lull of around two years, caused by the curbs on trade fairs and other mass events in the wake of the pandemic, traders were buoyed when the authorities slowly lifted the restrictions around three months ago. However, in the wake of the recent increase in the spread of the virus, boosted by the arrival of its new variant Omicron, the Rajasthan government has imposed new restrictions that could mar these traders’ prospects of recovering from their losses.

The heaviest blow to these traders was the cancellation of the Western Rajasthan Industry Handicrafts Festival that was to be held in Jodhpur from January 7. The second-largest fair in the state after the one held in Surajkund, this year’s event was expected to host around 600 traders from states Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. They sell wares such as bangles, readymade clothing, footwear, socks, woollens, handicraft items, bags, purses, pickles, sculptures and decorative items.

These traders were expecting good business at the 10-day Western Rajasthan Industry Handicrafts Festival scheduled to open on January 7 in Jodhpur. S.L. Paliwal, the general manager of the District Industries Centre, Jodhpur, said, “We were very enthusiastic about the fair, but, because of the Covid-19 guidelines issued by the government, we had to cancel it at the last moment. This is the second year the event has been cancelled because of the pandemic. We were expecting around 600 traders to set up their stalls at the venue.”

A mobile ecosystem in ruins

There are thousands of small traders in the country, whose livelihoods are dependent on such fairs and events. Most of them are illiterate and not part of an organised sector. In Rajasthan alone, there are more than 20 organisers of such fairs. Each of them has more than 150 traders who keep in touch with them to find out where the fairs are being held and travel to those locations to set up shops. The fairs often last for a month, and they get very few days to spend with their families.

Nasruddin Khan was in Sangaria, organising a trade fair, when the first lockdown was announced in 2020. He had to pack up in a hurry and couldn't return for nearly 18 months (Picture credit - Amarpal Singh Verma)

These traders were earning good money till the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020. Nasruddin Khan, who was in the middle of a trade fair at Sangaria in Rajasthan at that time, told 101Reporters that because of the abrupt announcement of the lockdown, he did not get enough time to wrap up the event. He also added that such disruptions caused heavy losses because they paid large amounts as rent for the venues.

It'd be 18 months before he would return to Sangaria to organise another fair. “This time I had invited between 50 and 60 traders, but only around 25 of them came because of a looming lockdown owing to the sudden increase in COVID-19 infections,” he said. 

Even though trade fairs had resumed about three months ago, the earnings of the traders were yet to level up to pre-pandemic levels, said Nitish Kumar, a bangle seller from Bihar who was at the fair in Sangaria. He said that most of the visitors to such fairs belonged to the middle and lower-middle class, whose purchasing power had already been hit by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Rahul, a resident of Aligarh who was selling clothing at the fair, told 101Reporters that before the pandemic, his shop used to have a daily turnover of more than Rs 50,000, but now it was difficult to collect even Rs 3,000 in a day.

Nazim Hasan, who hails from Saharanpur in UP, said that he had set up his shop at the Sangaria venue after attending fairs at Suratgarh, Pilibanga and Anupgarh. “None of the events was profitable for me,” he said.

Traders say not only are fairs being cancelled but even when they are allowed, attendance is poor. Rahul (above) barely makes Rs 3,000 a day now whereas he used to make almost Rs 50,000 a day before the pandemic (Picture credit - Amarpal Singh Verma)

Traders in many states affected

Jagram Gurjar, an organiser of trade fairs, said, “There are people like me in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. All of us take a group of shopkeepers with us. These businesses have all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Because of the two-year lull, the shopkeepers were deep in debt, Gurjar said. “These people are very poor and not organised. Except for the rainy season, they travel around the country the whole year. These traders were badly affected by the pandemic, but never received any relief from the government,” he said, adding that sometimes they suffer a loss of life and property in accidents that occur during their travels from one venue to another. Still, the government never considered providing them insurance cover.

Gurjar said, “The Rajasthan government has stopped granting permissions to all events that attract a crowd, including big events such as the Western Rajasthan Industry Handicrafts Festival and trade fairs held in small towns and villages. It has banned all events where more than 50 persons are gathered. Hence, organising trade fairs under these circumstances is meaningless.”

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