Fort and Pettah Street Vendors in Double Jeopardy
By Nabiya Vaffoor and Sandeep Tissaaratchy
“While we were recovering from the blows of Easter Sunday terror attack in 2019, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic that put us from the frying pan to the fire,” grieved 50-year-old, Jagath Palitha.
Palitha, a resident of Gampaha is one of the hundreds who earn a daily wage, to feed another hundred, by selling clothes near the Bodhiraja Temple in Pettah.
“We don’t have high expectations for 2021, since in the past two years haven’t been good. Our bad times started on 21 April 2019, with the Easter Sunday and the prevailing security situation at that time, since our lives mattered more than the clothing stocks we had to sell. Just as we were recovering from the losses we made in 2019, COVID-19 hit us like a tsunami and we are yet seeking ways to recover our losses,” he added.
Palitha had to face double jeopardy having to bear transport costs when compelled to take his stocks home. He said due to health regulations and slow influx of people to the Fort from other areas, the business is still breathing but weakly.
“Our only hope is to earn something from the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season but if the authorities plan to lock down the country again, we will be helpless, “he said while adding,” it would be better if authorities could find a better way to control the pandemic without imposing lockdowns.”
“We have to pay Rs 6,000 per month to the Colombo Municipal Council. Some, who have their own shops, rent them out for Rs 1500 per day but now they can’t rent them for more than Rs.500-600 since there isn’t enough income coming from these shops,” added Palitha.
Palitha’s is in the same plight as that of many of the hundreds of people who have their own clothing stores or other shops and those who work in them for a daily wage.
Those who sell goods such as fruits and food items took their stocks back home spending money expecting the lockdown to end soon, but were in utter misery as all those stocks ended up rotten and had to be disposed.
Jayatissa, a 60-year-old from Gampaha works at a fruit stall owned by his brother, said they only earn one third of the income that they used to earn during the latter part of 2019.
“With sudden curfews or lockdowns imposed we couldn’t do any business. But, loan sharks we borrowed money from in order to buy stocks to sell and repay from the earnings made, had no time for our excuses; but we would have to ultimately pay them. How are we going to survive when we had to dispose of stocks worth over Rs 200,000 to 300,000 during that time?” questioned Jayatissa.
Jayathissa lamented that he will be compelled to completely shut down the business if another lockdown was imposed.
“We don’t see an end to this pandemic in the near future as it is widely spread. While others can still get paid by working from home, people like us will have no way of finding our bread and butter as we cannot sell our stocks in virtual shops while staying at home” lamented 52-year-old Wimalasiri who hails from Matale.
Hailing from Elpitiya, Nishantha is a 38-year-old, who has a fruit cart and has been doing business in the Pettah for 22 years. He said, the Police usually conduct random PCR and Rapid Antigen Tests as if we were the only vulnerable crowd.
“We didn’t earn millions of rupees from these businesses be it either 2019 or 2020. In 2019 I had a reasonable amount of sales where I earned around Rs 3,000 per day, while I earn only Rs 1,500 now. Since I don’t have a store I don’t purchase a huge stock of fruits. Yet, I still had to dispose of fruits worth over Rs.15,000 after the Government imposed the first lockdown and ordered us to close all the shops,” Nishantha said.
Siriyawathi is a 65-year-old Thotalanga resident, who sells Banana’s in the Pettah Fruit and Vegetables market.
She said, “I have been doing this business for nearly 40-years. I have two children. I don’t live with my daughter since I can’t rely on my sons-in-law’s income and be a burden on them. My son is helping me with this business. I have been facing hard times since my husband is sick and bedridden. I lost about Rs 10,000 as I had to throw away the entire stock as a result of sudden curfews and lockdowns during the COVID-19. I usually earn an income of around Rs 2,300 per day but in 2020 we barely earned any income and we are yet to see what is in store for 2021.”
Niroshan, a 30-year-old employee, who has worked in a retail shop for more than six years said, the shop was closed for more than one month but they had to pay the rent for it.
“ Though we had no income at all, we yet paid Rs 300,000 as rent and Rs 40,000 for electricity. Although we are an essential goods retail shop, where we sell rice, dhal, sugar, flour and other essential things, we were not allowed to open and conduct business activities during the lockdown. Prior to COVID-19, it was a wholesale shop and after COVID-19 we became retailers because the whole sale buyers reduced their purchasing. However, the expected income in 2020 is not achieved and in previous years, we had a good annual income, now even after converting it into a retail shop we are yet to receive the expected income,” he said.
Sidath Dharmasiri, the 53-year-old Mattakkuliya resident, has been working at Fort as a dry fish seller for over 30-years and had to pawn all his jewellery for survival.
“I had to close my dry fish stall for more than three months during the pandemic, and had to throw away dry fish worth almost Rs 150,000. We usually pay around Rs 3,000 to 4,000 to the municipality as rent and the maintenance fee for this market area. The government has removed it now, but we pay security personnel about Rs 500 per stall a day even without any income,” added Dharmasiri.
The vendors in the Fort and Pettah are looking for an extra penny to survive by risking their lives in an escalating pandemic. Ceylon Today observed they are trying their best to adhere to the health guidelines. Is the risk taken by them worth it? The future is yet uncertain even in 2021. Their lives could be better only if the Government paid attention to these daily wage earners when implementing rules and regulations while in this pandemic.
(Pix by Kelum Chamara)