- There are 2,60,000 hawkers in the capital
- Businesses declined by 60% to 70% after general holidays
- "I have decided not to continue my daughter's [class four] studies for the next year," says a hawker
- Daily income has decreased by 40%-90% compared to before the pandemic
- "We only talk about the deplorable condition of hawkers in Dhaka, but the condition of hawkers outside the capital is worse," says economist Dr Khaliquzzaman
Ashraful Islam sells pants in front of Tejgaon College at Farmgate in the capital. He used to earn Tk2,000 daily before the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but now his income has shrunk to Tk800.
"After the shutdown was lifted, I returned to Dhaka, borrowing some money again. Now, though I have resumed my old business, I am passing through a very hard time – often I do not have the money I need to meet my needs," he said.
Many small and medium-sized enterprise entrepreneurs have been trying hard to get their businesses back on track ever since the withdrawal of the Covid-induced shutdown on 31 May. But, the pandemic has brought about a radical change to ordinary people's spending habits.
Economists said requirements of common people have changed a lot amid the pandemic. People now do not spend much on various products, save the daily essentials.
Although various sectors of the country's trade and commerce are now on their way to recovery, thousands of hawkers in the capital have yet to overcome the huge losses inflicted by the pandemic.
Economists said the pandemic experience has made the country's people aware of the importance of saving. And roadside hawkers are one of the sectors bearing the brunt of this change in spending habits of the people.
The government has no accurate information about the number of hawkers in the country.
However, according to a report called, "Urban Situation 2018: From the Perspective of Traffic Congestion in Dhaka Metropolis," published by the Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) of non-governmental organisation BRAC, there are more than 2,50,000 hawkers in Dhaka.
According to different hawkers' associations, there are 2,60,000 hawkers in the capital. Of them, 1,50,000 hawkers run their businesses on footpaths while 25,000 run them along roads and 25,000 of them are seasonal workers.
There is no available information about the total number of hawkers in the country. Some say there are more than 10 million hawkers.
Hawkers said their businesses have declined by 60% to 70% after the reopening of businesses since the withdrawal of the general holidays. In some cases, the situation has deteriorated further, forcing them to live miserable lives.
A life of uncertainty
Sharing his experience during the pandemic, Ashraful Islam told The Business Standard (TBS), "I had a little food stored at home at the beginning of the shutdown. But once it was finished, I faced terrible uncertainty.
"Borrowing Tk2,500 from an acquaintance, I started selling vegetables from a van in the 60 Feet Road area of Mirpur, but the profit was marginal. For five months, I could not pay the house rent. Finding no option, I returned to my village in Manikganj."
"Now that my income has fallen so low, I still have to keep a certain amount of my profit for the police every day," he alleged.
During recent spot visits in the city's different busy areas – including Farmgate, New Market, Gulistan and Baitul Mukarram – this correspondent talked to at least 15 hawkers. Of them, 12 said they are currently passing through a tough time that they did not imagine was possible just months ago.
Abdul Huq, from Maijdi upazila in Noakhali, sells plastic bottles, jugs, mugs, etc., at New Market. At the beginning of the pandemic, in April, he left the capital for his ancestral home. The whole time during the shutdown he remained unemployed. After going home, the first month was not so tough, but after a month he fell into an acute financial crisis. Since, then he has been living on loans, and the situation has extended till now.
Sharing his distress with TBS, he said, "My only daughter reads in class four. The pandemic has put me in such a tough situation that I have decided not to continue her studies for the next year."
Huq came back to Dhaka to start a new business a few days ago, borrowing Tk10,000. Although the general holidays were cancelled a long time ago, he could not return to Dhaka earlier as he was not able to borrow money. In total, he was forced to borrow Tk40,000 amid the pandemic.
"Before the beginning of the pandemic," he reminisced, "I used to sell products worth Tk5,000 daily. But now, the income has dropped to Tk700-800 daily," he added.
Throughout the year, hawkers are haunted by a continuous fear of being evicted. Several hawkers alleged to this correspondent that police regularly extort money from them, even during the pandemic.
Another hawker Robin Sheikh had been selling towels in Gulistan, Dhaka over the last four years. Although he used to sell products worth Tk2,500 to Tk3,000 every day, now his sales have narrowed down to Tk1,000.
He said, "I passed the whole shutdown period unemployed at home in Kishoreganj. The first few weeks I passed leisurely on my savings. But my savings vanished into thin air within weeks, forcing me to work on someone else's land to survive from hand to mouth. I also had to borrow Tk30,000 during these months."
"My family's expenditures, monthly, have now reduced to a mere third of what they were before the pandemic. I have only one son. I used to spend what I could on him. Now I can barely manage one third of the amount I used to spend happily to build up his life," Rabin Sheikh told TBS.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put not only Ashraful, Abdul Huq and Rabin Sheikh into such unbearable distress, hawker leaders claimed thousands of hawkers nationwide are facing the same misfortune.
City corporations look away
Saying that no financial assistance has been given to hawkers amid the pandemic, Public Relations Officer of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) ASM Mamun told TBS that the city corporation is not planning on giving any in the near future.
Dhaka South City Corporation Public Relations officer Md Abu Naser echoed.
No end to misfortune
Like the elected public representatives, the government's social welfare department has also completed its responsibility by doing nothing, said a hawker leader.
He said they submitted an application to the Social Welfare Department, seeking a weekly ration for distressed hawkers. "But we have yet to get a response," he said, frustrated.
Bangladesh Hawkers Union President Murshikul Islam said, "The Social Welfare Department provided food assistance for one week to just 140 hawkers in June. Since then, we have received no assistance for the thousands of hawkers of the capital from the government."
Sharing that hawkers are now living a life of perpetual hunger, he urged the government to extend its helping hand to ill-fated citizens who also have the right to live.
In response to a query over their demands to the government, he said, "I would only say please, do something so that we can also survive the pandemic."
'Hawkers themselves have to find solution'
Meanwhile, noted economist Dr Kazi Khaliquzzaman Ahmed thinks that in this turbulent time of pandemic, the hawkers themselves have to find a solution to their misfortunes, instead of looking at the government.
"After the pandemic, a lot of things will not be the same," he observed, adding that even if the situation returns to normal, like before, it will take time. But the question is how the hawkers will survive the time in between.
"The hawkers, unfortunately, are not among the beneficiaries of pandemic incentives the government declared for small-sized enterprise entrepreneurs. So, all in all, the current situation is very difficult for them," he added.
"We only talk about the deplorable condition of hawkers in Dhaka, but the condition of hawkers outside the capital is worse," he added.