From buzzing IT corridor to sleepy corner of town: How COVID-19 has changed OMR

The worst hit have been small businesses in the area, as their customers -- mostly migrant IT sector employees -- have gone back home.

The infamous evening traffic jams during rush hour in OMR seem like a thing of the past. The lockdown imposed on account of COVID-19 and the subsequent directives by many firms to work from home have made the once bustling area — commonly dubbed as Chennai’s IT corridor — deserted, with only local residents seemingly still around. The area resembles a ghost town in many parts.

Customers — mostly employees who would take breaks over a cup of tea — at the tea shops that had come up outside the big office buildings have vanished. Restaurants and take-out services have seen little to no business ever since the lockdown. The paying guest accommodations that mushroomed across OMR to cater to migrant employees are mostly empty today, as many of the occupants have gone back home.

So, how is OMR coping with this exodus of residents that brought it to life?

The IT boom

When the TIDEL park was first set up in Taramani in 2000, it sowed the seeds for many IT & IteS firms to set up operations in Chennai.  According to reports,  IT & ITeS firms provide employment to close to 1.3 lakh individuals. Apart from TIDEL Park, one of Asia’s largest IT Parks, the stretch is also home to the SIPCOT IT Park, International Tech Park, Futura Tech Park and Chennai One.

As employment prospects in the area skyrocketed on the back of the global IT boom in the early 2000s, the  region saw tremendous growth, both in real estate and business enterprises. Most of these thrived as they catered to the needs of the IT employees.

New apartment complexes were built in the areas around the IT firms, restaurants and food services came up in huge numbers to meet the demands of employees who worked long hours. Malls, clothing stores, gyms and other services followed suit, quickly transforming parts of OMR into a self-sufficient bubble.

Lockdown woes

When the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020 to arrest the spread of COVID-19, few could gauge the profound impact that the pandemic would have in the months to follow. 

“When we were asked to work from home in March, many of us assumed it would be a temporary measure and that things would return to normal by the following month or so. The extent to which it has affected the city and the state was not something we had anticipated by the farthest stretch of our imagination,” says Srivathsan K, an IT employee and native of Trichy. 

By mid-April, however, it became all too clear that the pandemic was not going to relent anytime soon. Srivathsan’s firm issued work from home orders for most of the employees with necessary arrangements made for remote work. 

“I was sharing a flat with one other person who is also an employee in an IT firm. Both of us belonged to other cities. When we were told that this could be the situation until the end of the year, we decided to vacate the flat. Our families wanted us to return and it made sense to save the money by moving back home,” says Srivathsan.

This pattern has been observed across the areas that have seen many IT employees from cities such as Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Salem and other parts of Tamil Nadu, or even other states, move back home. As many as 400 apartment complexes dot OMR and many of the owners have seen their tenants vacate and leave for home.

“I had rented out my flat in Mantri apartments to an IT employee in TCS. Many of the companies have asked employees to work from home until the end of the year at least. So my tenant vacated the flat and returned to Vizag,” says Kaliappan S. “I have listed the flat for rent, it has been on the market for around a month now but I have not been able to find any tenants. I used to pay off a portion of the EMI from the rent but now I am left to dig into other savings for the time being.”

Paying guest accommodations too have hit a rough patch. Those who were employed in these accommodations as caretakers and caterers have also been affected as a consequence.

Muna, an employee of one of the PG accommodations in OMR says, “There are vacant rooms in the PG and no one to cook for. We don’t know if and when any residents will come back or if there will be new tenants. If things do not improve here, I will have to look for other prospects in the long run.” 

Businesses take a hit

The vibrant ecosystem of businesses and services in OMR has also buckled under the twin impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and work-from-home directives. Shops and establishments that have reopened in residential areas like Anna Nagar or Kodambakkam are seeing some semblance of normalcy return, but those in OMR still await customers.

Praveen Sridhar owns a laundromat in Thiruvanmiyur. Most of his regular customers are not set to return in the foreseeable future.

“A lot of businesses in the area had shut down after the lockdown and many have not opened even now. I started my laundromat around four years ago and had seen a decent turnover in the last two years. But since March, things have taken a turn for the worse,” says Praveen. He currently finds only 10% of the business that he used to have normally. Entrepreneurs like him point out that if work from home becomes a policy even after the lockdown is fully lifted, that will kill many businesses in the area. 

Authorities at Maharaja Supermarket share similar concerns. “Many of our customers, close to 80%, were IT employees many of whom had come from other cities and towns. They have left the city, so there is very little footfall. Only the locals have kept the business going in the past few months,” says the proprietor.

Workers at the supermarket, who were migrants, have also left the city and the store has had issues with supply chain too due to the lockdown. If normalcy is not restored in the next few months, owners fear serious financial hit.

Maharaja supermarket has seen a drop in footfall after lockdown.

Food businesses including chains, standalone restaurants, tea stalls and small mom-and-pop operations have all faced the brunt of the lockdown in the past four months. Industry insiders say that these areas, which were once the best performing zones for app aggregators like Zomato and Swiggy, have seen a sharp drop in order volumes. 

“When the lockdown was first announced, people were afraid to eat out and that hit the business hard. Now in the following months, we have had to shut down one outlet. We are exploring other partnerships and launching products such as podis and essentials to diversify and keep the business going. The floating population and those who rent homes in OMR have left on a large scale, so this is causing a dip in our sales,” says Baba, Head of Operations, Food Street.

Gaurav Vada Pav, a famous, award-winning vada pav stall in Perungudi has had to shut operations. The hugely popular outlet was closed for four months before the proprietor, Arun Chalke, took the decision to shut for good. “The shop has been running for eight years in the same spot and we used to have 500 customers per day. But now, since the lockdown has been lifted, we hardly get 10-15 customers. I decided it was not worth putting everything at risk,” says Arun. 

Gaurav Vada Pav has shut operations and might move to a new location in the future. Pic: Basavaraj M N

Arun has vacated the rented premises that his shop ran out of. “We don’t know when things will get back to normal with so many people having left. I had to make sure we had some income for the family. All the savings were going towards rental payments for the shop otherwise. If things continue to be the same, we will look at opening the shop in another locality.”

While a work from home policy might effectively address public health concerns to a large extent at present, the ripple effect caused by it is affecting the many ecosystems that sprung around the IT corridor and relied on the needs and spending power of the IT sector employees of OMR for their sustenance.

Many small businesses that are currently suffering might be shut for good. COVID-19 and its fallout might just change the landscape of one of the fast growing parts of Chennai in the near, short term future. 

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