Ayodhya: Bashir Ahmad, 61, a small-time shoe-seller based in Ayodhya, can’t wait for the Ram temple to come up. Ahmad deals in Ayodhya’s famed khadaun, the traditional slippers with a single knob in the toe area, and business has been slow for the past many years. But the beginning of Ram Mandir construction has brought hope.
“People are saying that with the start of the Ram Temple construction, Ayodhya will soon become a very big tourist hub and Muslim traders will also immensely benefit from this,” he said. “Right now, all of them are suffering losses.”
Ahmad’s shop, a small wood-and-brick shack with several pairs of khadaun hanging on its blue walls, is located in Ayodhya’s Babu Bazaar area, which is around 4 km from the temple site.
Ahmad, a Muslim by faith, is oblivious to the communal overtones with which the Ram temple is associated. He is one of several local shopkeepers who have pinned their hopes on the Ram temple to extricate them from years of poor business and the further hit they suffered by virtue of the Covid-19 lockdown.
At Ahmad’s shop, sales have been so bad that he felt compelled to get his son Umaid to abandon his studies — he just completed Class 12 — and set up a photocopying shop. The fanfare surrounding the temple has brought hope for Ahmad claims to have earned all of Rs 5,000 in the past four months.
“How can anyone live on this much?” he said.
Slowing business wrecked by lockdown
During his address after the Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan Wednesday, PM Narendra Modi said the entire economic spectrum of Ayodhya will be transformed by the temple.
According to Bashir, it is a “matter of immense joy that the Prime Minister himself came to Ayodhya and talked about promoting a self-reliant India”.
In a town where several small businesses, especially those involved in the trade of khadaun, seem to be struggling, Modi’s words were no less than a lifeline.
The lockdown has certainly added to their woes, but local businesses say sales haven’t been rosy in years, especially for khadaun sellers, and have been coming down steadily for the last 2-3 years. One pair of khadaun is sold at approximately Rs 140. Such is the situation, the sellers claim, that sales of two-three pairs a day are considered a big deal.
Mohammad Qasim, 64, another trader who operates from Babu Bazaar, said the fame of Ayodhya’s khadaun could be traced to the Vedic era.
“There was a time when Ayodhya’s khadaun were famous all over the country,” he said. “Hindu pilgrims, especially the elderly ones, used to buy a lot of khadauns from Ayodhya. Earlier, orders were also received from different Hindu pilgrimage sites like Ayodhya, Varanasi, Haridwar, Mathura, Prayagraj etc, but these orders completely vanished during the lockdown,” he added.
Bablu Khan, 40, said everyone in Ayodhya had welcomed the November 2019 Supreme Court order that paved the way for the construction of the Ram temple. “We have always considered Ayodhya a city of peace and harmony,” he added, ruing, however, that the prosperity they expected with the verdict hasn’t arrived yet.
“It has been nine months since the SC verdict, but the kind of boom we were expecting in our businesses has not yet been seen. The lockdown has completely wrecked the business of small shopkeepers. Now it is being speculated that many shops can also be removed to facilitate widening of roads,” he said. “This has doubled our tension.”
Bablu said media coverage of Ayodhya never dwells on local problems but only focuses on the temple.
Noori Fatima, 52, who sells iron boxes, has the same complaint, betraying a sense of frustration with the whole mosque-temple debate.
“The condition of small traders has worsened a lot during the lockdown. Those who had placed orders earlier have also cancelled them. We have to pay salaries to the labourers too, but how can we pay them when we ourselves are not earning anything?” she said.
“Whom should we contact to express our concerns? You people (from media)… talk only about the temple-mosque dispute. We have no objection to the Ram Temple. We just want our businesses to grow but it is not happening.”
Mehboob Ali, 42, who runs a shop selling images of Hindu deities at Tedhi Bazar, which is 3 km from the temple site, said he had hoped business would pick up after the settlement of the dispute. It hasn’t, but he hasn’t given up hope. Ali expects business to boom once the temple is constructed.
“Apart from harbouring such hopes, what other option is there? Whatever income used to be there, it was lost in the havoc created by the coronavirus pandemic. Very few devotees came to Ayodhya during the lockdown. In such a situation, the small shopkeepers suffered a lot of losses. It might take years to compensate for this,” he added.
Mehboob said there are more than 100 small shopkeepers in Ayodhya who sell items like khadaun, sculptures, posters etc. “Everyone is hoping their business might acquire some shine after the construction of the Ram temple,” he added.