New Delhi: Odd-even rules for opening shops in markets on weekdays and a rolling weekend curfew, where all shops selling non-essential goods are shut by decree — traders across the national capital are speaking out against the Covid rules imposed by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA).
After incurring heavy losses during periods of lockdown in 2020 and 2021, most traders’ associations are actively engaging with the government on social media as well as staging protests. All of them have written letters to the government, as well as met officials in person. Their immediate goal: To get some relief from the current rules.
Their efforts seemed to bear fruit Friday, when Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia said at a press briefing that the government planned to lift the odd-even rules, as well as the weekend curfew, now that absolute Covid numbers, as well as the positivity rate, were coming down steadily in the capital.
“As cases go down, we have to ensure that the livelihoods of people are not affected any further. People need to get their businesses back on track…. The pandemic has already led to massive job loss. That should not continue. So, in the favour of traders, the government has taken the decisions to lift weekend curfew, do away with the odd-even rule for markets…,” Sisodia said.
However, the proposal was shot down by Delhi Lieutenant Governor and DDMA chief Anil Baijal, whose approval is needed for any such executive decision. Sources in the L-G’s office said Covid rules are likely to be lifted in a phased manner once the positivity rate in the city falls below 20 per cent.
A DDMA order issued Friday, accessed by ThePrint, says the rules will remain in place for now. However, it allows private offices to function with 50 per cent of their staff in attendance, something also proposed by the Delhi government and announced by Sisodia.
The decision, for now, leaves Delhi’s traders in the same zone of uncertainty and despair that they have been inhabiting for some time.
Market associations like the Federation of Sadar Bazar Traders Association and Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal, that represent small-scale traders as well, say the rules governing markets and business establishments are flawed.
Some Sadar Bazar association members even took to the streets this week, banging ‘thaalis’ and wearing black bands to protest against the government’s odd-even rule and weekend curfew.
‘Mental health suffering’
At a time of a Covid surge, a market like Sadar Bazar presents obvious problems — on a weekday, it’s packed with people, who seem to have little concern for social distancing norms. More than a thousand shops are crammed into the main market, which is barricaded at both ends and from where illegal hawkers are barred.
But once in its bylanes, adding to the human crush are hawkers and small-time traders aggressively peddling their goods. Enforcing Covid-appropriate distancing in such a place is the biggest challenge for authorities. But the traders have their own set of woes because of the restrictions.
“We are not in a position to pay our own employees. A single shop employs two to six people and they have been struggling for survival,” Rakesh Kumar, shopowner and president of the Federation of Sadar Bazar Traders Association, told ThePrint.
“The mental health of small-scale businessmen is in a fragile state, since earnings are hand-to-mouth at this point. All rules seem to be targeting brick and mortar shops like us; online ones are thriving, leaving us dry,” he added.
Federation vice-president Kamal Kumar, also a trader, said the real issue is about managing the crowds. The problem, he says, is compounded by illegal hawkers who continue to venture into the market area and openly flout rules, for which the shopkeepers are held responsible.
“Any inspection will lead to hefty penalties for the shopkeepers, but there is no effort to solve the problem at its roots — these illegal hawkers just vanish when authorities come on their inspection rounds. This plan is flawed, because there is no social distancing anyway,” said Kamal.
“People come to this market to not visit just one shop. Photographs of the place might show innumerable heads and immense crowds, but most of them are illegal hawkers, not customers,” he added. “Customers have not visited the market in a while, hence sales are down. Therefore, if no relaxation in rules happens even after a week, we will have to give the keys of our shops to the authorities and seal the place. There is no point in spending so much fuel and human resources.”
‘Remove curfew, keep odd-even’
Fifteen minutes from Sadar Bazaar is the Chandni Chowk area, which goes through a similar predicament every day.
However, shopkeepers at the market here maintain a measured stand on the odd-even and curfew rules, not outright blaming the government for its Covid policy.
Heading the Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal is Sanjay Bhargav, who told ThePrint that he would wait till next Sunday, 30 January, before he writes letters to the chief minister and the civic agencies, pleading for a relaxation of the rules.
“The Delhi High Court Thursday ordered the Delhi Police to remove unauthorised hawkers, since that is one of the biggest battles in ensuring social distancing. We are still experiencing a bad time Covid-wise, and we need to remain vigilant as citizens,” said Bhargav.
“At the same time, we have to be practical about this. I believe we could do away with weekend curfews and keep the odd-even rule in place. Illegal encroachment should be looked after by the MCD. The onus lies on people as well, since enforcing laws is not the only element in this battle against a raging pandemic,” he added.
Chandni Chowk being a no hawking and vending zone, the Delhi HC Thursday directed the police and the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to remove all unauthorised hawkers and vendors from the area.
“The problem lies with the police deployment as well, since two to four police constables have to look after an entire market of nearly a thousand shops. How many are they going to penalise for not wearing masks and how many are they going to catch for illegally squatting? This is beyond our understanding,” a Chandni Chowk shopkeeper who didn’t want to be named told ThePrint.
‘Sending videos, writing online to authorities’
New Delhi’s Connaught Place, which seems to be girded by police barricades these days, wears a deserted look as outlets of most high-end brands follow the odd-even rule. But disgruntled shopkeepers are aplenty inside Palika Bazaar and around the Janpath area.
“Ten days won’t be enough to recover costs in a month. There are employees working with us, and we don’t know who will hear us at the end of the day. There are shops who are working on odd days despite having an even number, no one checks this 24×7. So how is this fair to people who are honestly complying?” lamented Manoj Kumar Manoja, who owns a shop in Janpath market.
“We have left no stone unturned in approaching authorities and it has been tough for us to survive. We have been sending videos and writing online as well. All shopkeepers have been actively doing that,” said Tony Chawla, joint secretary of the Janpath Traders Association (JPTA).
President of New Delhi Traders Association — the traders body in the Connaught Place area — Atul Bhargava said, “There is utter confusion, we have lost so much money in these two years, but there has been no economic package for us either. We have been honest tax-paying citizens and if we fall apart there won’t be any employment generation as well. It does not make sense when public transport is in full swing, but somehow only shops seem to be adding to the Covid numbers,” he added.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)