Government

Fear, Uncertainty Over Essential Supplies and Services Marks Day 1 of National Lockdown

Glimpses from across the country on how the public and administration have been struggling to define and procure essential services and supplies as the nation goes into lockdown.

New Delhi: After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would go under a 21 day ‘lockdown’ – without mentioning how the supply of essentials would be ensured – panic took over the streets in most parts of India with people rushing to grocery stores and medical stores to stock up, with uncertainty clouding the weeks to come. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs later released an order which listed essential services such as grocery stores, vegetable vendors, medical stores, etc which were exempt from the lockdown. 


However, in several parts of the country – which have been on varying degrees of lockdown since last week – there have been reports of police personnel, residents’ groups and vigilantes harassing and beating up delivery persons, forcibly closing down grocery stores, and stopping trucks carrying essential commodities. 

Prices of vegetables and fruits have also seen a substantial increase due to the panic and uncertainty around the situation. 

Madhya Pradesh

Like in most parts of the country, Madhya Pradesh’s commercial capital Indore and state capital Bhopal saw panic buying of essentials immediately after Modi’s announcement with people crowding around grocery stores, vegetable vendors, fruit vendors and medical stores to stock up on supplies.

Given the rush, measures needed to protect oneself from COVID-19 – such as maintaining at least a 6 feet distance between people – were not being taken. 

Prices of essential commodities have also started to increase. In Indore’s wholesale Choithram Fruit and Vegetable Market and in Bhopal’s Nav Bahar Sabji Mandi, prices of fruits and vegetables have jumped nearly two and three times. As adjoining districts shut their borders, long queues of trucks carrying fruits, vegetables and other food commodities are stuck on the highway. Retailers and shop keepers are unsure as to when they are expected to get the next supply of fruits, vegetables and other food commodities.

In the state capital, business has been less than normal due to the curfew on Tuesday night. However, just after Modi’s 21-day lockdown announcement, few shops that were opened, witnessed brisk buying in many provision and general stores across the city, including the satellite colonies of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited.

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Both vendors and stockists are unaware when they are expected to get the next supply.

“Even if we get supplies, we are not sure when customer is going to pick up products from my shop,” said S. Agrawal, owner of four largest grocery stores of the state capital.

The new Bharatiya Janata Party government by chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has appealed to citizens to follow the country wide lockdown of 21 days. Chouhan told citizens that the government is responsible to ensure the supply of essential commodities during these 21 days.

Shops of daily needs like milk, fruits, vegetables, grocery and medicines etc. will remain open and supply of all the necessary items will be ensured, he said. While keeping in view the gravity of the pandemic, Chouhan has urged the citizens that there is no need to panic.

Kashmir

Spools of concertina wires and barricades – a familiar sight – are back on the roads in the city and elsewhere, and contingents of police and paramilitary CRPF have taken over the Valley to enforce a complete lockdown.

These restrictions began on March 19 – a day after the first case of COVID-19 was reported from Srinagar. Soon, J&K police and paramilitary forces swung into action and started arresting people for violating prohibitory orders.

At least 49 persons were arrested from Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir on March 23 and 23 vehicles were also seized. The number of arrests has since gone up.

The curbs, however, led to panic buying with people stocking up essentials and medicines in many parts of Kashmir. The panic buying had been going on for some days, but picked up late on Tuesday night, like in other parts of India, after the PM’s lockdown-announcement. Long rows of cars were witnessed outside grocery shops with people waiting in queues to buy whatever they could lay hand.

“Every item has been sold out, not a single packet of milk or cooking oil is left now,” Muzamil Khan, a shopkeeper in interiors of uptown Chanpora in Srinagar, said.

Khan’s father, Ghulam Nabi, ran the grocery shop for 23 years before his son took over in 2018. He shared his experience about how people in the Valley have survived government-enforced lockdowns, which sometimes run for months together.

“This practice has helped us to see through the worst phases like 2010 agitation, 2016 or the five-month lockdown after August last year,” he said. “Even in the normal situation, people keep essentials reserved at home which can last for weeks.”

But, it is the sizeable population of street vendors, labourers, and beggars who look likely to bear the brunt of this latest lockdown. In Srinagar alone, there are around 4,500 to 5,000 street vendors including the 2,200 who are registered with the government. There is a sizeable population of these vendors in towns across Kashmir.

Senior leader of J&K Apni Party, Muhammad Dilawar Mir asked the government to reach out to vendors, daily rated workers and destitute sections of the society, with a financial package to ensure they do not suffer. He said people too have a role to play.

“Unfortunately, the government seems to be a mute spectator to their miseries and sufferings,” said Mir.

Srinagar on day one of the lockdown. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh 

Modi’s lack of clarity also led to panic buying of essential commodities in the two Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Traders have resorted to hoarding of commodities leading to artificial scarcity and price rise. Serpentine queues have been witnessed in front of supermarkets in Hyderabad with customers eagerly waiting for their turn to purchase food items.  

In Vijaywada, prices of vegetables have increased three and four times, which is turning out to be a double whammy for the daily wage earners engaged in informal sectors. They have lost their employment due to the lockdown and are now being required to pay twice the amount for essentials. 

In the public distribution system (PDS), meant for the families under below poverty line, so far, only rice is available. The poor with white ration cards are forced to invariably purchase all the other essential items outside the PDS shops, at higher rates.

Telangana government offered 12 kg rice for each BPL family, coupled with a cash assistance of Rs 1,500 as against Andhra Pradesh government’s assistance, 5 kg rice and Rs 1,000 in cash. CPI(M) spokesman Ch. Babu Rao of Andhra Pradesh observed that the absence of a price control mechanism from government side comes handy for the traders to fleece gullible people and make a killing out of the COVID-19 scare. 

Kerala  

Since the state has been in a state of lockdown since Monday, the impact of Modi’s announcement was minimal.  

However, life under lockdown has begun to streamline. The essential shops remain open and people continue to queue up outside them in urban areas as a large number of people are now allowed inside the shops. While they queue up they have to maintain one metre distance between them.  

Rural shops remained comparatively crowd free. Many of the small scale grocery shops have already run out of stock. Essential goods shops were allowed to open between 7 am to 5 pm. 

District administrations have made arrangements for home delivery in many of the districts. They have identified shops that can handle home delivery and have published their numbers and contact. For example the Malappuram district collector has published a list of 60 outlets which can deliver to the essentials including grocery, vegetables fish and meat.  

Youth organisations like Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and Muslim Youth League have started a network of young volunteers for delivering essentials to the needy. 

The chief worry is over the availability of goods. As the state borders are already shut it will be difficult for a totally dependent state like Kerala to survive. The government is in touch with neighbouring states and working on the modalities to bring the goods and arrange for the smooth movement of goods containers.

Kerala state beverages corporation’s outlets were open on Tuesday, but on Wednesday morning they have decided to shut down, due to the strong protest from the opposition and a section of trade unions. The outlets will remain closed today and the future course of action will be taken in today’s cabinet meeting. The government was of the opinion that liquor shops should not be closed. Now its mulling over selling liquor through bars that have been closed.  

A dog strays in the deserted Burrabazar area, business hub of Kolkata. Photo: PTI

 Rajasthan

The Rajasthan government announced that the essential services will remain functional despite the national lockdown. However, on the ground, the services are available at the moment but the supply chain is gradually breaking.

The grocery stores in Jaipur remain operational from 8:30 am to 12 noon every day. The owners say that the supply of goods hasn’t taken place since Sunday and they are selling only the stocked goods. “We are selling only the goods that we have. As of now, there is no intimation from the government about when the supply will be resumed,” said Shyam, a grocery store owner in Ambabari area in Jaipur.

They say that the police are not the letting the vehicles move on around because of which the delivery of goods is affected.

“We either go to the wholesaler on our own or they supply goods as per the contract between us. Since the movement is restricted, the goods cannot be delivered,” says Ganesh, another grocery store owner in Jaipur.

The vegetable vendors are moving around in the residential areas to sell vegetables, however, they say the supply from the mandis is erratic.

“We are selling only the vegetables that we had. The supply is not reaching us and if this is going to continue, we won’t be able to provide the vegetables in the city,” says Kailash Singh, a vegetable vendor in Jaipur.

The mandis in Jaipur remain operational only till noon which is affecting the supply in various parts of the city.

“The Mandi opens at 12 in the mid night to 12 noon. The delivery vehicles collect the vegetables from there and supply to various other places in the city but due to restriction on time, the vegetables are not supplied in every area” says Tanu Chauhan, a pick-up driver who deals with supplying vegetable from mandis to other places across Jaipur.

“Normally, each pick-up used to make about 7-8 rounds from the mandis to the market but now we are able to make two rounds at the maximum because of the time limitation imposed on the operation of the mandis and the police crackdown,” he added.

The public transport and private vehicles are restricted in Jaipur. Many people were seen walking to reach their destination.

“My close relative passed away in the morning. We are going to their place on foot since the buses are not functioning. We can’t say that since their is no conveyance available, we couldn’t come. That doesn’t work for us,” says a woman in Jaipur.

A market in Sangli. Photo: PTI

West Bengal 

Most markets across the state are functioning with curtailed timings. Vegetables markets across Kolkata are open with huge crowds gathering in them consistently. The police is not restricting movement of those out to buy essentials. “But, then everyone says they are outside to buy essentials,” a police personnel said. The police is patrolling the areas. 

In smaller towns like Siliguri, Bardhaman and Cooch Behar too, markets are open. Many people are not following the lockdown and stepping out to gather around street side tea stalls and pan shops. The state government has directed the police to take strict action against violators. 

Assam  

In Guwahati police personnel beat up people who had ventured out to get their daily supply of essential commodities.

A resident, Tapas Das Choudhury, who still owns a rare Assam Type House in the age of apartments said, “I just unlocked the main gate to see the lockdown details. It was overwhelming to see cops suddenly arrive and hit people left and right. These are the people who dared to venture out to purchase rice, lentils and other essentials.”

“It was quite unfortunate to see people being hit. I belong to an upper middle class segment. If there is no window period to get access to basic items I will be starved. I had sent my house manager to check the nearest kirana store to get hold of basic things. It ran out of stuff. And, besides me stocking items like rice and lentils I have no extra LPG. But I have a wooded area in my backyard. I am building a chulha to stifle any uncertainty if my present LPG runs out. No other option.” 

A vendor in Sahibabad. Photo: PTI

Delhi

In many places in Delhi, police personnel are forcing even grocery stores to remain shut. “The cops told us that we could open our shop only from 7 am to 11 am in the morning,” said Manoj Bisht, a grocery store owner at Lado Sarai, Delhi. He also said that it is being very difficult to source supplies for his job.

“People are buying in panic. Last night, all our stock got over. We don’t know how to source more things as the supplier can’t come between 7 and 11 am. We will have to figure these things out.” 

The police also asked the meat and fish shop owners to remain closed. Meat and fish are among essential commodities. 

Only one medicine shop at Lado Sarai was allowed to open. 

“From where are we supposed to get identification documents? We only have our Aadhaar cards or driving licences with us. It is a very precarious situation as we fear getting beaten up by the cops,” said Hari Nagar, who runs a vegetable store in Sector 62, Noida and makes his purchases from Sahibabad wholesale market. While police in UP and also Delhi have announced measures whereby employees of companies dealing in essential services and goods can get `curfew passes’, these do not cover vegetable sellers who have to commute to the wholesale markets to make purchases.

“At the moment, both cops and us are unclear how things will proceed. The grocery stores have almost run out of stock,” said Pramod Jena, the chemist shop owner.

Police have been accused of being unfair.

“Only yesterday a cop stationed near the NH-24 underpass in Indirapuram hit me with his baton while I was on my way home in Noida after closing my shop,” said Brij Bihari, who runs a grocery store. The problem is more acute with such traders who have to cross state or district borders in pursuit of their work.

Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal took to Twitter to assuage concerns on essential supplies providers.

 

Bihar  

In Patna people in large numbers gathered outside grocery stores this morning as they feared that the supply of essentials could run short in the coming weeks. 

“We are trying that people continue to get their supplies in an orderly way. But we don’t know if wholesalers will continue to supply. Things like pulses and oils have already started running out,” said a grocery store owner in Patna. 

Vegetables too have started running out as people have bought in large quantities. The administration is appealing through loudspeakers that people should not hoard. 

Uttar Pradesh  

So far the supply of essentials is being maintained as in most parts of India’s most populous state shops of essentials are opened between 7 and 11 am. Vegetable and fruit vendors are also allowed to set up their carts and take their carts into colonies.  

But prices have increased. For instance, potatoes are now selling at Rs 60 a kilogram up from Rs 20 just a week ago. 

Vegetable vendors are procuring from the mandis early in the morning. “So far it is working as we are able to get the supply,” said a vegetable vendor in Meerut. 

But the worry remains on how the supplies will be maintained over three weeks. “We don’t know how our supplies are going to reach. Many of our products come from outside the state. We don’t know if they will be allowed to come in,” said a grocery store owner in Saharanpur. 

(With inputs from Anup Dutta in Madhya Pradesh, Himadri Ghosh in West Bengal, Gali Nagaraja in Hyderabad, Gaurav Das in Assam, Rajeev Ramachandran in Kerala, Umesh Ray in Bihar, Ajoy Ashirwad and Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar in Delhi, Shruti Jain in Rajasthan and Kabir Agarwal in Uttar Pradesh)