Until the end of March this year, Deepak Gupta had a flourishing business. He provided catering services to six schools in North Delhi, with 30 employees and a large kitchen at his disposal. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything went downhill.
The schools in New Delhi shut down. His employees returned to their villages. His kitchen, for which he still pays rent, ran empty. His wife thinks he’s trying to set up something new, but he has no funds. “It’s tense all day, what to do?” Gupta told Re:Set. “Our entire business has been shut now for six months, so I’m arranging funds for my family’s daily needs by asking my parents to help from the pension they receive.”
“The income went but my expenses didn’t go anywhere. I have a daughter in grade 12 and a son in grade 4,” he added.
Gupta’s contract with the schools was a simple one, with most clauses being around quality assurance, but not one had a pandemic clause, so the schools owe him nothing. He says there’s no caterers union to fight for people like him and no easy bank loans. From being jam packed and starting at 8 a.m., his days now are about taking a morning walk, watching Indian crime shows and in his words, the vitriol television news peddles every night. This week, the Indian government finally released a plan to get kids back into schools, but the standard operating procedure says that only those from grades 9 to 12 looking for guidance from teachers, and coming from outside containment zones can come on a voluntary basis. There will be no lunch breaks.
“We’re just trying to survive day to day.”
“It’s a start, but for us it’s more uncertainty,” Gupta said. “This pandemic is such a crisis no one can do anything. All we can do is wait and watch. I just pray to god it goes away and everyone’s life comes back to normal.”
Like Gupta, 25-year-old Deepak (last name withheld on request) of Raghubir Singh Caterers too saw his business plummet once COVID-19 hit. He only joined the business a few months ago to help his father.
“All ten schools instantly cancelled and our entire income went to zero in one day,” he told Re:Set. “Now we’re trying to pivot by selling tiffin boxes on Amazon. It’s not replaceable at all, as we’re barely 20% of what we were making before COVID-19. We’re just trying to survive day to day.”
With schools partially opening, Deepak has seen no respite as the stance of the ten schools he caters to in New Delhi’s Rohini area hasn’t changed.
“Some people knew of this partial reopening last week, so I spoke with the schools,” he explained. “But they aren’t saying when they’ll get us back, because we don’t know how and when the restrictions placed upon schools will change. What if there’s an outbreak? What then? No one knows.”
Schools are big business, and the associated businesses have taken a nosedive. Manufacturers of school uniforms, stationery and books are all struggling, especially because schools shut down just as the new academic session was about to begin.
51-year-old Sushil Kumar’s business too came to a grinding halt. He used to provide private cab service to 70 kids from two schools in West Delhi, but now his five cabs sit empty.
“Business has died completely and the only other income I get is rent from one small shop,” Kumar told Re:Set. “I’m just sitting at home, doing nothing. All day, I have to listen to slights from my family members.”
“And I’m still paying EMI for one of the cars,” he added.
Kumar was hoping that the lifting the lockdown partially would help, but the government hasn’t given any guidelines for cabs. These are small enclosed spaces and with kids in close quarters, where social distancing is very difficult. Even if schools return to full capacity, getting all his customers back would be difficult. Grade 12 students who have graduated need to be replaced by primary school kids who might need cabs, but the new school session never started.
“I don’t know if I can get even 50 back even when we eventually start,” he said.
To find some use for his idle vehicles, Kumar asked his brother, who works for a factory in Meerut, for help. But their business too has suffered losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so finding contract work has been difficult.
“No business wants to hire cabs right now because people don’t want to travel,” Kumar said. “Only financial support I’m getting is from my brother and sister. No one but family helps in such difficult times.”