From selling turmeric water to security services: How the jobless in Delhi are rebuilding their lives

More and more people who lost their jobs to the pandemic are making new beginnings. Earnings may be less initially, but the road ahead promises flexibility and independence.

Manoj Kumar, 34, had lost his job even before the lockdown. With car sales taking a steep dip due to the pandemic, Manoj, a sales agent in the car loan section of the Kotak Mahindra group in Ghaziabad, was not among the lucky few who were offered leave without pay or the option of staying on with a steep pay cut.

Initially optimistic about being able to find another job, Manoj soon found his hopes dashed by the countrywide lockdown. “I would read every article on how to make a living in the times of COVID, read posts or watch YouTube channels that told you how to survive job losses, how to convert these into opportunities etc,” says Manoj. “They made it all sound easy, and very lucrative, but it was not quite so.”

Well-meaning friends advised him to start selling insurance policies, reasoning that if he could sell loans, he could sell insurance. But after doing more than a week’s home work on the work options available, Manoj decided he would be his own boss, and not work for anyone.

“Even insurance sales will be difficult, when the economy is going from bad to worse,” felt Manoj. “It is only essential supplies that people are spending on. And they were scared to go out and shop, so I decided to set up the simplest business of home delivering vegetables in a neat and credible way.”

And so was born ‘Naturekart’, a name Manoj chose for his home delivery business. His friend Mohit designed a colourful poster and together they drafted a text positioning Naturekart as ‘Your Local Vegetables and Fruits Suppliers.’

Every day, Manoj sends out a pdf file of 2 or 3 pages on WhatsApp with the day’s prices for vegetables and fruits. He takes orders till 9 pm on Google Forms, but tells customers that if they prefer Whatsapping their requirements, that will work too, as this does not cost him anything and is convenient for most of his customers.

Naturekart’s promo poster. Manoj plans to add more items to this list.

Now, his day begins as early as 4 am, when he goes to the mandis at Gazipur and Sahibabad –both within 3 kms of his house—to pick up vegetables and fruits to deliver to his customers by 12 noon. As a dry run, he begged and persuaded friends and friends of family members to order from him and forward the Naturekart poster to all their contacts.

He rolled out the service formally on May 1st, by when he had hired a helper to wash and pack the vegetables, a delivery boy, and rented a room for Rs 8000 a month in Vaishali, which is central for his service areas of Vasundara, Vaishali, Indirapuram, Kaushambi and Noida — all densely populated with high rise buildings.

Manoj provides a contactless service comparable with the established e-commerce sites, but adds the 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 pay digitally.

“I started by buying vegetables and fruits worth about Rs 8,000 a day, now there are days when it is twice the amount,” says a smiling Manoj. “Now people are venturing out so there is a slight dip, but I have made up by adding other things – like sprouts, mushrooms, noodles etc.”

The first time entrepreneur intends growing his business by adding bakery products and groceries in due course. After paying rent and salaries, he now earns an average of about Rs 25,000 a month. The business has given him enough confidence to not look for a job even after the unlock process continues. And what he counts as a blessing is the fact that he has been paying his home loan EMI of Rs 7,000 uninterrupted.

New beginnings

As more and more people like Manoj find themselves without the secure jobs they had, the need to manage home expenses, pay EMIs, and take care of children’s school fees, rents and medical expenses, is pushing them into making new beginnings, where though initial earning may be less, the road ahead seems promising, with flexibility and independence.

While it is easier for those who can work online — teaching a skill online, for example — it is a new beginning for those who have to go out and physically work. Not surprisingly, many of these people are getting into delivering something to people in the neighbourhood.

Akhilesh Gaur was a supervisor in a small rubber product manufacturing unit in the East Delhi which downed shutters due to the lockdown, leaving Akhilesh and his family of five dependents unsure about how the future would pan out for them. As he desperately searched for alternative income, his wife Manju, noticed people came to the Mother Dairy booth morning and evening. The couple decided to set up a small table next to the booth selling some “immunity boosters”.

They bottled “giloy” juice, turmeric-lemon juice and ginger-lemon juice in 200 ml disposable bottles. “It is not much of a business, but better than doing nothing,” says Akhilesh. The earning from this is enough to pay for their vegetables and groceries. His wife, he says, is a good home chef, but given the general reluctance these days to order food from outside, they have let that thought be for the time being. Luckily, they have no EMIs, but have just one mobile phone in the family — the three children are all under seven.

An accountant at a small hotel, Tarun Chadda, knew what he would do even before he was laid off in mid-May with a month’s salary as settlement. “People were scared – and even now they are – to walk even half a kilometre to go buy their bread, eggs etc. 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, and I stay in the pavement only mornings and evenings. But it is something at least.”

Going informal

These are not rare examples. The number of once-salaried people forced to look for alternative means of income in the informal-self-employed category is steadily on the increase.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, salaried jobs have taken the biggest sustained hit in the current COVID-19 induced 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 per cent in informal employment. However, salaried jobs have declined by 18.9 million, a whopping 22 per cent, during the lockdown.

Coping differently

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 sacked pilot of Air India is struggling!

The school bus driver, who did not want to be identified, found himself on the road when the private school management he worked for told him they were dispensing with his services for now. But they assured him that when things return to normal, they will have him back. “But what do I do till then?” asked the driver, “I need to earn money to pay my children’s school fees.”

He got together with some other drivers, and began driving private cars charging Rs 450 for four hours as the basic fare, and Rs 50 per hour beyond that, for driving within the NCR. He was earning Rs 30,000 a month earlier. Now he makes about Rs 15,000, the same as other drivers offering a similar service.

“There are people whose drivers have gone home (to UP, Bihar, Punjab and Himachal), or have been sacked temporarily, the way I have been. So we fill that gap.” According to him, because of COVID, many senior citizens don’t want to drive their cars, which is where he steps in.

Chander Kumar (name changed), a pilot with Air India, was retrenched in end March. But Chander had an EMI of almost one lakh rupees for the flat he had bought in Noida soon after he joined Air India. The pandemic also hit his wife Kirtana’s (name changed) fashion wear business. Chander is now trying to sell his apartment, and intends starting a realty business with what will remain after he has paid off the bank loans.

“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,” feels Chander. Chander, in his 30s, is still hoping to get his job back. Meanwhile, he is looking around to buy land where he can start a housing project. Chander mentioned that one of his colleagues, also without a job, is looking to set up a household security agency.

Such examples are many. But how sustainable such rebuilding of livelihoods will be, with millions of jobless people being forced to try out completely new avenues, remains to be seen.

According to Mahesh Vyas, MD and CEO of CMIE, this trend reflects the desperation of Indians to get back to some employment after the prolonged involuntary break. “But while all kinds of work are equally honorable, jobs have a qualitative pecking order and a regular salaried job will always be the top preference.”

And those will get fewer and fewer to come by in a post-pandemic economy.

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