Shuttered markets in Pune. | Photo: Vasant Prabhu/ThePrint
Shuttered markets in Pune. | Vasant Prabhu/ThePrint
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Pune: Seeking a go-ahead from the government to commit suicide, meeting the municipal commissioner for assistance and a demand for rebates — this is how traders and shop owners in Pune are registering their protest against the lockdown that has been extended in the city until 23 July to curb Covid-19 cases.

Several associations of traders across the city claimed that they have incurred losses worth lakhs in the last four months, and these intermittent lockdowns are damaging whatever is left of their business.

While a traders’ association has said there is no option left but to take their lives, another body met the Pune Municipal Commissioner seeking clarity on when businesses can resume. Several other shop owners in the city have also demanded rebate in taxes and extensions of payment of dues.

“Our business has been shut for the past 120 days, while we are still paying our rents, all taxes, EMIs. What option do we have if to not commit suicide?” said Rakesh Nibjiya, secretary, Pune Iron and Steel Merchant Association, one of the protesting groups.

The comments came after some members of the association drafted an application, saying that the group should either convince the state government to lift the lockdown and not impose it in the future, or allow them to commit suicide.

The body then made a representation to the Federation of Trade Association, Pune. The latter took it up with the commissioner, along with other concerns.

“A lot of members got together and made this representation. We also circulated a video on social media so that we are able to put our message across. Our federation then intervened and assured us that they would speak to the authorities for a solution,” Nibjiya said.

“Either the government should promise us that there would be no lockdown now, or else they should give us permission to kill ourselves,” he added.

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Intermittent lockdowns push traders to meet Pune commissioner

With Covid-19 cases rising in Maharashtra, many cities have been imposing intermittent lockdowns, affecting business.

For instance, Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) earlier this month extended the lockdown from 12 until 19 July. Similarly, a 10-day lockdown imposed in Kalyan Dombivali until 12 July was extended to 19 July. In Mira Bhayandar, where a lockdown was in force until 11 July, the civic body had extended it to 18 July.

In Pune, after Unlock 1 was announced last month, businesses across the city began resuming before the Maharashtra government declared a fresh lockdown until 31 July.

While a few relaxations were given in the first week of July and some businesses resumed, the city then announced a lockdown from 13 to 23 July. The first five days were meant to be strict lockdown. Essential services and groceries have been allowed for the rest.

The Federation of Trade Association last week met the Pune Municipal Commissioner, requesting him to open up the markets.

“We met the commissioner of our civic body as we needed some clarity on when we will be able to start our work. Most small-time traders are now in debt, the workers and labourers have not been paid. There has to be a solution for this. This cannot go on like this forever,” said Mahendra Pitaliya, secretary, Federation of Trade Association, Pune.

“Just like all other states have opened business, we should too. The Covid-19 cases will rise, but locking everyone at home, stopping all work, is no solution. The lockdown must end,” he added.

‘Need to maintain balance’

Pune Municipal Commissioner Vikram Kumar said when cases are surging there is a need to maintain a balance between the economy and health concerns.

The lockdown was imposed to “break the chain” of infections that are on the rise, improve testing and expedite contact-tracing, he said.

“The purpose of the lockdown is to conduct whatever tests we can and take out maximum positive people from the population, isolate and treat them so that the rest of the people can be saved from the virus,” he said.

“For five days it was a strict lockdown and the rest of the five days we gave considerable relaxations. The idea is to maintain a balance between the economy and the virus. Economy should continue, but virus has to be kept at bay alongside,” he added.

Kumar said he spoke to traders and tried to explain the rationale behind the lockdowns.

“I spoke to the traders and heard them out. Of course, these lockdowns are hurting them, but if we put it all in perspective that these cases are surging, it is important. And the traders agreed,” he added.

The commissioner also said that the municipal corporation will work with the traders to resolve the issue and come up with the best possible solution.

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‘Each time it is a new beginning’

Traders claimed that each time the lockdown is imposed they have to start from scratch to resume operations, which becomes a major challenge.

“We are left with very limited labour and to resume operation after shutting the shop for days is a challenging task. Moreover, to get customers to the shop now is difficult. We ensure that everything is sanitised, secure, and then the shop gets shut down again due to restrictions,” Nibjiya said.

“And if we do not cooperate then we are fined,” he added.

Many shops in Pune have also been shut on and off because they fall in the radius of containment zones that get created in affected areas.

“Most of us have shops on main roads, while the containment zones are inside. The authorities still ask us to shut our shops, just because our shops fall on the peripheries of a containment zone. Each time we open our shop, it is shut after a few days. Sometimes it is the lockdown, sometimes due to sealing of areas,” said Hitesh, a trader who has a shop in Shaniwar Peth market.

Demand for rebates

The traders are also demanding a rebate in payments of taxes, like goods and services tax and property taxes. They are also seeking an extension for payment of their dues.

“We have been out of business for the past 4 months but have been paying exorbitant electricity bills, rents for shops, salaries, property tax, or dues. There have been no relaxations in any of this. The government should give us some sort of support,” Nibjiya said.

“Many small traders, shop owners, are now in debt due to no sales, no profit but only expenditure,” he added.

Shivaji, a trader who has a rented shop in Budhwar Peth market said, “If they have to impose these lockdowns time and again, then they have to think of a plan for the small-time traders like us. Why not waive the property tax, give some rebates. When there are no earnings, how are we expected to shell out so much money?”

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