WFH wrecks peripheral shops in IT hubs

Bangalore Capstone COVID-19 Uncategorized

The shops which used to be the frequent visiting spot for the techies are still closed as all of them have been working from home since the lockdown imposed last year. Most of the shop owners and workers went back to their home. Either they are still jobless or have taken up another job.

Bengaluru: In mid-March last year, Ranjit went to visit his old parents, wife and a two-year-old son at his village home in Madhubani district of Bihar. It was a routine visit for just a week. He had to return to Bangalore soon as he runs a snacks and tea shop opposite Wipro building in Electronic City.

But Covid-19 was spreading so rapidly in India that the central government declared lockdown on March 23, 2020. All 138 crore of India’s population were stuck where they were.

Ranjit was one of them. He could not come back to his rented house in Bangalore. There he had a stock of potato and onion which values almost Rs.30,000 and other stocks of oil, spices etc value near about Rs. 45,000. He tried to return them to the wholesaler taking help from his landlord but it went in vain. All the potatoes, onions, oil and spices were wasted.

His savings were dried up in due course of time. Ranjit tried to find a job in his village. Everyone was suffering to make ends meet; who would give him a job? Hence, he stepped into the final option he had — borrowed money. Alike everyone, he didn’t expect the lockdown would go so long. Lenders were asking for money he had to repay.

With the hope of earning money again, he came back to Bangalore in November and reopened his shop after almost eight months. But all the IT offices of Electronic City were working from home. Streets of Electronic city were almost lifeless. Even a kid of pre-school can count the everyday customers of Ranjit’s shop. In last March, he said, “Still the business is very poor; rarely do I sell two litres of tea in a day, while 10 litres were not adequate earlier.”  Seven people used to work in that shop, he called back only two of them. “I feel sorry for the other five. Hardly I can manage half of the shop rent, how would I pay them!”

Plenty of small shop keepers, restaurant owners like Ranjit are adversely affected during the pandemic. They did not earn a single penny throughout the entire lockdown last year. Even after the lockdown was lifted, they did not get their fortune back. As the lockdown norms are eased, gradually the market starts acquiring its pre-pandemic shape but the situation remains same for the peripheral shops of city’s IT industry as the IT offices continue to work from home.

Thelas are left alone as their owners went back to their villages | Author

Electronic City, hub for major IT offices, is the workplace of almost one lakh people. To serve the cravings of those IT workers a major peripheral industry, consisting of chai shop, snacks, fast foods, restaurant, juice seller etc, has grown up. Many people used to earn their livelihood from these peripheral shops by either running it or working there. Now in a situation like this when almost all the office staffs are working from home these people fail to make their ends meet.

Ranjit like characters are seen in almost all the streets of IT hubs of Bangalore. The story of Manjula BG, a 40-year-old woman who sells tea at Electronic City, is similar to Ranjit. Three km away from Electronic City she lives in a rented house with her son. During the lockdown she had to leave that house and went to her village in Chikmagalur district, by hiring a car.

Fast food shop owners have taken up other jobs | Akhil Jagirdar

Being the only breadwinner and a single mother, it is difficult for her to survive. She said, “First few months the shop was completely shut. The usual sell in my shop was nearly Rs. 8,000 per day before the lockdown. Now it is reduced to only Rs. 2,000 to 3,000.”

Bengaluru is known globally for the presence of the IT parks which creates a massive influx of IT professionals to the city from the entire country as well as the world. But the lockdown, owing to the pandemic, made them go back to their hometowns and are working there remotely. According to a Livemint report, the giant IT parks of the city are functioning with a skeletal 5-15 per cent of employees and there is no certainty when the others will return to offices.

The physical absence of more than 85 per cent employees is affecting the business of not only small chai shops but also well established restaurants which used to supply meals in various offices. Nandanam Restaurant is such a restaurant at Electronic City phase 1 that used to get orders of meals for lunch, dinner and other office parties. As well as visiting people also used to gather at their outlet to have meals during peak times. But when this reporter visited the restaurant during the lunch hour, only four customers were served food while there were eight tables each has a capacity of four persons.

Restaurants incur loss as the offices are not having parties | Anirudha Yerunkar

The manager and cashier, Sadish Kumar has put on the hat just three months ago (as of March). He said that 15 people used to work in the restaurant including chef, service men and cleaning staffs; all were sent home because of the lockdown last year. “Only six staffs were called back just three months ago, when the owner resumed the service,” he added. 

Manyata Embassy Business Park is the workplace of around 1 lakh employees. It has offices of big players like IBM and Cognizant. Only 15,000 employees are attending office physically there. The scenario is same at the 69-acre International Tech Park of Whitefield. Tata Consultancy Services is a large occupier there. But only around 5-7% of 55,000 professionals of Whitefield are back at work.

Almost 10 years ago, Arjun Sah left his native home in Bhojpur district of Bihar in search of a living and reached Bangalore to make his ends meet. He took up a job of security guard in Whitefield. As he started earning good he brought his family here and started living in a rented house almost four km away from Whitefield for which he now pays Rs. 4,000 per month.

He lost his security guard job when the lockdown started. His employer gave him two months’ salary. Since then he was jobless and living in his savings and credits. In the first week of March, 2021 he took a small shop on rent of Rs. 1,200 per month. The shop, near International Tech Park Bangalore in Whitefield, gives him a business of only Rs. 800 to 1,000 which is not sufficient to run his family. He said, “Baithe rehne se to accha hai; time pass bhi ho jata hai.” (It’s better than sitting idle at home; I can earn money while passing time here.)

His wife used to earn money through stitching works which was also stopped after the lockdown. Still his wife is jobless.  

They have three sons and a daughter. Arjun always supported and encouraged them in their studies. The elder son is studying in college. The second son is in class ten and the last son and the daughter is in class eight. Among all these plights of lockdown he neither let their study to be hampered nor let them join hands to earn money.

Though the Covid restrictions were eased, according to a Livemint report, Cisco gave work from home option at least to its 80 per cent of employees. For Wipro Ltd. and Infosys Ltd. the percentage is 90. Dell Technologies is one step ahead; it has given permission of working from home to its 100 percent employees. Though, 93 per cent employees have chosen this option. The work from home culture has now become comfortable for both the companies and the employees. Employees do not have to travel to the office while the companies are saving in electric bills and other utility bills.

Priyanka Sarkar, a project lead of Wipro Ltd, said, “There is no hope in recent future to return to physical office culture. The second wave has sealed this.” She added that they are not in hurry to start physical office. “We didn’t notice any degradation in the performance of our employees during the WFH.”

This unending culture has forced some peripheral shopkeepers and workers to change their profession.

The shutter of Royal Bengal Corner, a fast food shop opposite Infosys gate 3 in Electronic City phase 1, was down. A shed, made of roofing sheets, was there in front of the Shutter. Empty packets of chips, cigarettes etc. were scattered almost everywhere in the shade. A white colour basin is placed in the right side wall, which became a dustbin. A thick layer of dust has snatched the yellow glow of the tiles and turned them into pale grey.

A mobile number was written on a board for home delivery service. When the reporter dialled the number, Nagma Parveen picked up the call. She informed that her husband Mahammad Farhad, a resident of Patna, is the owner of that fast food shop.

Farhad, along with his wife and six-year-old child, was stuck in Bangalore during the first three months of lockdown. His wife Nagma said that they returned Patna in July. “We were too stressed in Bangalore. After a lot of arrangements we returned home.”

Dust, lockdown and WFH snatched the glitter of a restaurant in Electronic City phase-1 | Author

Nagma informed that Farhad is now in Delhi; he is working as a chef in a canteen there. They do not have planned to refurbish the fast food shop anytime soon though they are mired in credits. “Income has fallen drastically since the lockdown. He (Farhad) is the only breadwinner of the entire family of eight; that too we have child,” she added.

According to the Economic Survey of 2018-19, 93 per cent of the total workforce of the country is from unorganized sector. In spite of such a major contribution, there are no concrete provisions to safeguard it. During the pandemic, this unorganised sector is the worst hit despite having a big hand to run the economy.

Daniel Umi, South Asian head of the migration unit of Aide et Action, said, “The biggest challenge is we don’t have any data. Even the government doesn’t have the mechanism to support them financially. The irony in India is these small shopkeepers who work as migrant workers in different informal sector; no one knows what the total number (of such people). That’s why they are the people who suffered the most last year.”

“Other sectors like construction workers have their own welfare boards but again these people are excluded from any such boards. We have domestic workers, we have thelawalas, we have chaiwalas all of them need support during this situation. For them India should have an umbrella social security scheme,” he added.

Social security for crores like Ranjit, Manjula or Farhad is the need of the hour. But, Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 report says that 49.6 per cent of the unorganised sector do not even qualify for any social security scheme.

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