Covid-19: How Tamil Nadu’s grocers are handling the lockdown

“Salt and jaggery?” V Saraswathy, who runs G Ganapathy Stores in Coimbatore with her husband, attends to a customer, while she is on the phone with me. “Hold on,” she tells me, as she gets to work. It is 5 pm, three hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi would announce a 21-day lockdown in India, owing to the COVID-19 situation. But it’s business as usual for Saraswathy. She does know that the State is in a lockdown and that she runs the risk of infection if she exposes herself to too many people. “But everyone in the neighbourhood will suffer if we close down,” she says.

As the country stays indoors to break the chain of COVID-19 infection, there are several others out there helping to keep our everyday lives running — medical professionals, the police force, mediapersons… then there are people like Saraswathy, who make sure that our daily supplies never run out. Grocery stores fall in the essential services category, which means that during the lockdown, they can remain open. But several of them have understandably shut down.

Muthu Irulandi, who owns a rice store in Coimbatore, says he has no plans to close his shop. “I sell the most essential of products and cannot afford to stay back home,” he says. “What if someone badly needs to buy rice and all other shops in the vicinity are closed?” Muthu does admit that he fears infection. “I make sure that I don’t talk unnecessarily with my customers. I quickly get what they need and also maintain a distance.” He adds that he suggests home delivery to those walking in, as a better option.

Tiruchi’s Kumudham Department Store now downs its shutter at 6 pm instead of the usual 9 pm. It has mandated personal hygiene and frequent sanitisation protocols for its staff in its five branches, and also offers home delivery to customers who phone in their orders. Says R Raja, managing partner, “Though it is a medical risk, we feel it is our duty to reach out to the customers, especially senior citizens or people with disability.”

Business on the store’s website has seen an uptick, with nearly 20-25 queries coming in daily. “Despite this, in Tiruchi, many people feel satisfied only if they are able to buy things after seeing them personally,” says Raja, adding: “This pandemic doesn’t give us an excuse to hoard things, whether we are buyers or sellers. If everyone behaves in a calm manner, and sets a time slot to visit the grocery, there will be less confusion and more people will get what they need.”

Flow of food

Sanjay Dasari, co-founder of multi-state grocery chain store SunnyBee, is less worried about real shortage of supply, and more about spurt in demand because of worried customers who want to stock up.

“The interstate transport restrictions are mainly for non-essential goods. Once they see that the vehicle is carrying food, like fruits and vegetables, they let it through. Even if that slows down in a while, there is enough crop that farmers produce within the State, to make sure enough vegetables and grains are available,” says the Chennai-based entrepreneur, whose stores are open in Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and a number of other cities.

“For example, in Tamil Nadu, vegetables that shouldn’t be an issue include lady’s finger, brinjal, all gourds, tomato, cauliflower and cabbage. [In Karnataka, tomatoes, flat beans and gourds are common, while in Andhra and Telangana, it is paddy, corn, tomatoes and red gram]. It is only some produce that comes from the North, like onion, potato and apples, whose supply might be delayed.”

SunnyBee operates directly with multiple farmer producer companies in different regions of the country. Sanjay emphasises, “Farms are not like manufacturing companies; this is not the kind of production that can just be stopped. Crops are still growing, and farmers still want to supply and sell it — a drop in demand and fall in prices would hurt them more. All we need is some time to get the new rules clarified.” For now, the restrictions and new written permissions, which will take some days to be sorted out, are what seem to be holding up the stores. Home delivery services are still on, and the store is prioritisng the elderly for it.

Vijay Kumar, who owns a small store in Chennai, says he plans to sell vegetables, milk and curd every day, since he is sure that he will be able to source them. He has run out of all other products. Then there are people like Vayala, who go door-to-door selling vegetables. “I go to the Koyambedu market by 2 am to buy vegetables. As long as there is supply, I will continue to sell them.”

There’s an eerie emptiness about Keela Maasi Veedhi, Madurai’s usually bustling provisions store hub. “They have been instructed by the authorities to shut down since they are all in close proximity to one another,” says E Senthil, who runs Ramana Stores in Othakadai. He, however, plans to keep his shop open. “We’ve been in the business for 40 years, and do not want to turn away our regular customers,” he says.

Senthil knows how serious the situation is. “Which is why we encourage only five people to enter the store at a time,” he says, adding that he is also taking steps to ration out their supply. “I request that people buy not more than three kilograms of lentils at a time.” But sometimes, tensions run high and arguments come up. He also knows that he is fast running out of supplies. “I’m good for the next three days, after that, it all depends on whether the police allow vehicles carrying groceries to ply.”

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