Businesses protest lockdown ‘to recoup’
Hundreds of medium and small businessmen across the country took to the streets on the very first day of the seven-day countrywide lockdown, fearing the second consecutive "big losses" just ahead of the two major festivals – Pahela Baishakh and Eid-ul-Fitr.
Ignoring social distancing – many even without masks – they were desperate to make their simple demand heard: To allow them to keep their shops open while maintaining hygiene rules during the lockdown that came into force from yesterday.
Offices and kitchen markets are open, and people are allowed to move in the daytime. Food shops are also open for take-outs. But public transports and shopping malls have to remain shut under the new set of instructions enforced until 11 April.
Facing another abrupt closure of shops within a year was tough for the businesses who put money on and stuffed their shelves for two festival sales that see an estimated Tk30,000 crore in turnover in apparel shops alone.
The businesses, who lost the two festivals – Pahela Baishakh on 14 April and Eid-ul-Fitr in May – in the shutdown last year, had hoped for a better festival season this time.
But the restrictions came as a sudden blow to them.
The owners of shops at Dhaka New Super Market and adjacent markets, including Gauchhia Market, Mun Mansion Shopping Centre, Ishtiaqe Mansion, Nur Mansion, Hawkers Market and Elephant Road blocked Mirpur Road for an hour on Monday morning for the second consecutive day.
Retailers also demonstrated in Dhanmondi 27 and Mouchak areas in the city, denouncing the lockdown that put them in peril.
They urged the government to give them permission to keep shops open in compliance with all health guidelines. They also threatened to go for tougher movement if their demand is not fulfilled by Tuesday.
Dewan Aminul Islam, president of New Market Shop Owners' Association, told TBS that the pandemic could not be controlled only keeping shopping markets closed without closing the offices and other institutions.
"How can you control coronavirus just by shutting down all the markets when all offices and other institutions are open? Does coronavirus only spread in markets?" Dewan Aminul Ismal questioned.
Owners and employees of various markets, including Gausia Market and its surrounding Moon Mansion Shopping Center, Ishtiaq Mansion, Noor Mansion, Hawkers Market took to the streets amid the lockdown. Most of the protesters wore masks. Some had anti-lockdown slogans on their masks. They have no objection to follow the hygiene rules. But the market must be opened.
Md Ismail, owner of a clothing store at Gauchia Market, said, "Most shops in Gausia sell fabrics on both wholesale and retail bases though most of them are wholesalers. Wholesale clothes sales increase just a few days after Shab-e-Barat."
"I have invested all my savings in my business and taken some loans too. I imported fabrics for the next Eid. But suddenly, the government announced the lockdown. What should I do with these fabrics and clothes now? The same design will not be sold next year!" he added.
Another trader named Masum Khan Sumon, questioned, "If the book fair can continue, why can't the market? Garments and other factories are also open!"
Asked why they have come to the streets, Dewan Aminul Islam said the shop owners have no other options.
"Hunger is more dangerous than coronavirus for small and medium entrepreneurs. Hundreds of shop owners could not enjoy the last two Eid festivals. Why would they suffer the same way this year too?" he added.
The protesters also said they have to pay a huge amount of taxes to import and sell clothes but they do not get any benefits or stimulus.
Last year, their business collapsed due to the pandemic, if this happens this year too, they will not be able to survive, they said.
Meanwhile, in the evening, Dhaka South Shop Owners' Association held a meeting, demanding that the shops be kept open during the lockdown. The next decision will be taken after discussion, said the joint secretary of the Gauchia Market-centric Shop Owners Association Md Mosharraf Hossain.
However, no decision has been taken to keep the shops open till the last news, said Mosharraf Hossain, joint secretary of the Gauchia Market-centric Shop Owners Association.
Abul Hasan, assistant commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (New Market Zone), told TBS that agitated businessmen staged a demonstration on the Mirpur road and tried to block the road in front of the Chandrima Supermarket in the Capital.
"Police immediately dispersed them from the road and the traffic situation now is normal," he added.
Md Mosharraf Hossain, joint general secretary of Noor Mansion Market Association, said, "We want the market to be allowed to remain open for a certain time."
"We have not yet been able to recover the losses we incurred during the last general holidays," he also said.
Normally, after Shab-e-Barat, sales get momentum. But this time, the government imposed a lockdown, he said, adding, "We are struggling to pay rents and the salaries of the employees."
"We would like to request the government to withdraw restrictions on markets," said Mosharraf.
Harun Rashid, deputy general manager of Sunrise Shopping Complex at Dhanmondi 27, told TBS on Monday noon that they have blocked the Dhanmondi-27 intersection, demanding the reopening of the markets.
"At least 16 shop owners of Sunrise Plaza wanted to leave the market before Eid, I never experienced such a situation in my 26-year career. Many more are waiting to leave the market if the lockdown continues," he added.
Traders blocked the road in front of Dhanmondi's Sunrise Plaza on Monday afternoon. Later, the police rushed in and removed them to one side, and vehicular movement continued as usual.
Wishing anonymity, one of the protesting businessmen, told TBS, "Our businesses are going through extreme losses due to the lockdown. Eid is ahead, but we are not going to have sales if we cannot open shops."
"We are ready to do business in compliance with all kinds of safety and hygiene rules," he said.
The government has kept cinema halls and book fairs open, but closed the markets and shopping malls. Employers have stopped paying because they cannot do business, and the future of employees is uncertain too.
Another trader Abdur Rahim said, "We have not been able to recover from last year's losses. If there is a lockdown this year too, we have to live on roads," he added.
The protesters called upon the government to lift the lockdown from Tuesday, considering the concerns of traders.
Traders have also protested on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway demanding the withdrawal of restrictions on the opening of markets.
Kitchen markets are allowed to remain open until evening, but shopkeepers said their sales dropped on the first day of the fresh lockdown.
Mansoor Ahmed, owner of Barisal Food Store in Karwan Bazar, said, "I had witnessed good sales in the last few days. Only a few customers have come to my shop since this morning [Monday]."
Anwar Ali, wholesale vegetable trader, said, "If the people's movement decreases and they do not come to the market, we will not have good business."
Meanwhile, traders in Chattogram, also fear a massive loss because of the fresh lockdown.
Thousands of traders staged a demo by blocking the city's New Market intersection from 3pm on Monday.
Leaders of Chattogram Tamakumundi Lane Merchants' Association, New Market Merchant Welfare Association and Zahur Hawkers' Market Samity do not want the fresh spell of lockdown.
Instead, they emphasised enforcing strict health rules and keeping all the markets as they have invested a lot ahead of the upcoming Ramadan and Eid.
Mohammed Sagar, president of the Chattogram New Market Merchant Welfare Association, "The first lockdown incurred losses for us. The fresh lockdown has been enforced at a time when we were thinking of doing business centring the upcoming Ramadan and Eid."
Sayed Khurshid Alam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Shop Owners Association, Chattogram district, said, "Employees are more helpless than shop owners. They were unemployed for about four months last year. If this happens again, these people will have no choice but to die."
Traders also staged demonstrations at Chowmuhani Bazar in Noakhali's Begumganj to protest the lockdown and demand that businesses be kept open in compliance with health rules.