Out of work in COVID-19 lockdown, Delhi citizens try self-employment in hopes of rebuilding livelihoods
With millions out of work and many being forced to explore new avenues, it remains to be seen how much success these ventures have.
Manoj Kumar, 34, lost his job even before the lockdown. With car sales taking a steep dip due to the pandemic, Manoj, a salesman in the car loan section of the Kotak Mahindra group in Ghaziabad, was not among the lucky few offered leave without pay or the option of staying on with a steep pay cut.
Initially optimistic about finding another job, Manoj soon found his hopes dashed by the countrywide lockdown. “I would read every article on how to make a living in times of COVID, read posts or watch YouTube videos that explained how to survive job loss, how to convert this into an opportunity,” said Manoj. “They made it all sound easy and very lucrative, but it isn't.”
Well-meaning friends advised him to start selling insurance, reasoning that if he could sell car loans, then he could sell insurance. But after doing more than a week’s homework on the options available, Manoj decided he would be his own boss.
“I felt even selling insurance would be difficult to make when the economy is going from bad to worse,” Manoj said. “People were only buying essential supplies. And they were afraid to go out. So I decided to set up the simplest business: home delivering vegetables in a safe and hygienic manner.”
And thus was born Manoj's home delivery business ‘Naturekart’. His friend Mohit designed a colourful poster and they put their heads together to come up with the text.
Every day on WhatsApp, Manoj sends out a pdf of two or three pages outlining the day's prices for fruits and vegetables. He takes orders till 9 pm on Google Forms, but tells customers they can send their list on WhatsApp if they prefer.
WhatsApp costs Manoj nothing and is convenient for most of his customers.
Now, Manoj's day begins as early as 4 am, when he goes to the mandis at Gazipur and Sahibabad, both within three kilometres of his home, to pick up vegetables and fruits to deliver to his customers by noon.
As a dry run, he begged and friends and friends of family to order and send the Naturekart poster to all their contacts.
He formally rolled out the service on 1 May. By then, he'd hired a helper to wash and pack the vegetables, a delivery boy, and rented a room for Rs 8,000 a month in Vaishali, which is centrally located for his service areas of Vasundara, Vaishali, Indirapuram, Kaushambi and Noida: all densely populated with high-rises.
Manoj provides a contactless service comparable with the established e-commerce sites, but with the added personal touch of a local vendor. Customers can call and ask for something from Naturekart’s list. According to him, 9 out of 10 customers use digital payment methods.
“I started by buying vegetables and fruits worth around Rs 8,000 a day,” said a smiling Manoj. “Now, there are days when I purchase twice that amount. There's a slight dip these days because people are venturing out, but I've made up for that by adding sprouts, mushrooms and noodles.”
The first-time entrepreneur intends on growing his business by adding bakery products and groceries. After paying rent and salaries, he now earns around Rs 25,000 per month. The business has given him enough confidence to decide not to look for a job even after the lockdown ends. And he counts as a blessing that he has been able to pay the EMI on his home loan, Rs 7,000, uninterrupted.
People like Manoj — who find themselves without the security of a job, who need to manage home expenses, pay EMIs, take care of school fees, rent and medical expenses — are more and more being pushed into making new beginnings, where earnings initially may not be high, but the road ahead, promising flexibility and independence, seems inviting.
While those who work online — teaching a skill, for example — have it easier, the pandemic is offering a a new beginning to those who have to leave their homes. Unsurprisingly, many of these individuals are focusing on their neighbourhoods.
Akhilesh Gaur was a supervisor in a small rubber product manufacturing unit in east Delhi. The unit shuttered due to the lockdown, leaving Akhilesh and his family of five unsure about the future.
As Akhilesh desperately searched for an alternative, his wife Manju noticed a steady stream of customers, be it morning or evening, at the Mother Dairy booth. The couple decided to set stall, just a small table, next to the booth selling “immunity boosters”.
They bottled “giloy” juice (a turmeric-lemon juice and ginger-lemon juice) in 200 ml disposable bottles. “It isn't much of a business, but its better than doing nothing,” said Akhilesh. The earnings are enough to cover their vegetables and groceries.
His wife, he said, is a good home chef, but given the reluctance to order from outside the home these days, that's something to consider in the future. All their three children are under seven, their family has just one mobile, but at least they have no EMIs to worry about, he said.
Even before he was laid off in mid-May with a month's salary as severance pay, Tarun Chadda, previously an accountant at a small hotel, knew what he would do. “People were scared, as they still are, to walk even half a kilometre to buy bread and eggs. So I started selling bread, biscuits, sponge cake, rusk, and pizza base at a pavement between the gates of two buildings in Dwarka,” said Tarun. “I make less than half the money I was paid by the hotel, but at least I'm earning something.”
The number of former salaried turning to self-employment is steadily increasing.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), salaried jobs have taken the biggest hit during the COVID-19 lockdown: “About 189 lakh salaried persons in the informal sector had lost jobs till mid-August; 50 lakh of them in July alone. While informal jobs have returned and even increased after being hit by the lockdown, formal jobs have not. Non-salaried forms of employment have increased from 317.6 million in 2019-20 to 325.6 million in July 2020. This implies a growth of nearly 8 million jobs or an increase of 2.5 percent in informal employment. However, salaried jobs have declined by 18.9 million, a whopping 22 percent, during the lockdown.”
Those who have lost “smaller” jobs appear to be better able to find a way of earning a livelihood than those who have lost well paying jobs that required special qualifications. While the driver of a school bus has managed to prop himself up financially, a former Air India pilot is struggling.
The school bus driver, who did not wish to be identified, found himself at a loss when the management of the private school that employed him said his services were, for the moment, no longer required. But when things return to normal, they'd be glad to have him back, they assured him.
“But what do I do till then?” he wondered. “I need to to pay my children’s school fees.”
He and some other drivers got together and decided to offer their services to car owners: Rs 450 for driving for fours hours as basic fare and Rs 50 per hour beyond that (within NCR).
He was previously earning Rs 30,000 a month. Now, he makes around Rs 15,000.
“There are people whose drivers have gone home (to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Himachal), or have been sacked temporarily, the way I was. We fill that gap,” he said.
According to him, many senior citizens don’t want to drive their cars at this time, which is where he steps in.
Chander Kumar (name changed on request), a pilot with Air India, was retrenched in end March. But Chander had an EMI of almost Rs 1 lakh for a flat he'd bought in Noida soon after he joined Air India.
The pandemic also hit his wife Kirtana’s (name changed) fashion business. Chander is now trying to sell his apartment and intends to start a realty business with whatever is left after he pays off the bank loan.
“Real estate may be down and out now, but it will be among the first things to revive once we return to our pre-COVID life,” Chander said.
In his 30s, Chander is hoping to get his job back. He's also on the lookout for land on which he can start a housing project. One of his colleagues, also without a job, is looking at starting up a security agency.
Such examples are myriad. But with millions out of work and many being forced to explore new avenues, it remains to be seen how much success these ventures have.
According to Mahesh Vyas, MD and CEO of CMIE, this trend reflects the desperation of Indians to get back to work after the prolonged involuntary break. “But while all kinds of work are equally honourable, jobs have a qualitative pecking order. A regular salaried job will always be the top preference.”
And in a post-pandemic economy, those will be fewer and fewer.
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