Since the lockdown began in March, 42-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Sofi followed the same routine between home and his adjacent bakery shop. He greets passers-by with a gentle smile and then basks in the sun, sitting on the bakery’s pend, or shopfront.
However, it has been almost two months since Mr. Sofi has rolled up the shutters of his bakery, he has made no sales. A resident of Old-Chanapora area of uptown Srinagar’s, Mr. Sofi said he last opened his shop in April but only to dispose off expired bakery items.
On 15 May, an order by the Srinagar district authorities issuing guidelines to resume bakeries amid the lockdown had lifted the spirits of the bakers. According to the order issued by the Srinagar District Magistrate, authorities launched a two-week training module programme for businesses – particularly bakeries, vegetable vendors, and butchers – ahead of Eid.
The order had also come as a relief for many consumers who did not want to miss out on baked items this Eid. Kashmiris consume bakery items throughout the year, for most the morning tea remains incomplete without freshly baked bread from the local kandur (traditional bakers).
Demands for bakery items, including confectionary, sees a sharp rise during the wedding season, around festive occasions especially religious ones like the Eid, and after results of examinations are declared.
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) of Srinagar, Syed Sajad Qadiri said that the guidelines had been issued in consultation with the bakers’ association. “We decided to train all service providers including 180 bakery workers about precautions, hygiene, social distancing and other protocols for the safety of the public,” he said.
Around 500 workers of 180 bakeries were medically examined and trained to make the bakery for Eid-ul-Fitr, said Mr. Qadiri. “These 180 bakers were selected by the Bakers Association of Kashmir and they have selected the registered ones.”
The training, Mr. Qadiri explained, was to make workers aware of hygienic practices while making the bakery items and safety measures to prevent infections. The order reads on Eid celebration, home delivery of bakery is allowed for traders by following the proper guidelines.
Following the order from district commissioner’s office for bakers in Kashmir, all bakery workers will be given free personal protective equipment (PPE) kits who are mainly involved in manufacturing and delivery of bakery.
“Welcome but too late”
However, Omar Mukhtar, 55, the president of Kashmir Bakers and Confectioners Association (KBCA), who was also part of the training programme, said that the authorities took the decision “very late”. He explained that “for two-weeks, they trained workers and conduct a medical examination”.
According to Mukhtar, 95 per-cent of the bakers in the Srinagar district are associated with the union and among them, only 50 per-cent have made production even after the order. Mukhtar believes that after tourism and agriculture industry in Kashmir, Bakery industry turnover in millions. “But, like other sectors, it is sinking.”
On 20 May, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) in a statement claimed that the two months of the COVID lockdown had cost Kashmir’s economy Rupees 8,500 crore; previously, Kashmir economy suffered losses of Rupees 17,000 after the lockdown in August 2019, when the Centre unilaterally abrogated J-K’s limited autonomy.
Combined, an estimated amount of Rupees 25,000 crore losses has suffered in the past ten months in Kashmir, however, Eid business of Rupees 300 crore adds the sum. “In Kashmir valley, more than 470 bakers are associated with the union and every bakery unit on an average was earning rupees 3 lac during Eid,” said Mr. Mukhtar. “Imagine the loss.”
He further added that each bakery unit has been told to maintain a minimum number of workers and follow proper precautions and they will be reduced the production as well. “We have decided to produce only one-third of the production what we used to on normal Eid,” he said.
Mr. Mukhtar said that bakers are concerned about fears and myths surrounding the infection would dampen sales. “We had received a few orders on 18 May and then the mobile and internet services were suspended after Nawakadal encounter, the orders got cancelled,” said Mukhtar who runs a bakery shop in the old city area of Srinagar.
Mr. Mukhtar said that sales this year, so far, had already been less than half of the previous year. “Thousands of families are earning livelihood from this sector and for past nine months due to low or zero business, they are facing hardships in survival,” expressed Mukhtar sadly.
A sinking ship
However, Mr. Sofi has not come across any such order. “I do not know anything about such an order. If they have planned this, it will not benefit small shopkeepers like me,” he said. “I had around nine workers in my factory, after lockdown, they went back home.”
Mr. Sofi had shifted his business from kandurwan, traditional Kashmiri bakeries, to a westernised bakery shop about seven years ago; for the first few years, the returns were good. But the current pandemic has made it difficult for Mr. Sofi, the only earning member of a family of eight, to pay the bills.
Business in general in Kashmir, he said, is sinking and that he was running out of his savings. “We have no business for last nine months now,” said Mr. Sofi. “Many of us have taken loan from banks for business operations and now in such circumstances, how can we pay the instalments?”
In Kashmir, this is the second consecutive Eid under a lockdown. The last time stringent restrictions were enforced by the government forces fearing protests against the Centre’s unilateral abrogation of the J-K’s limited autonomy, just two weeks before the Muslim festival of Eid.
Prior to that, Kashmir’s economy has been repeatedly disturbed by the floods in 2014, the months long shutdown due to the uprising in 2016, and then the frequent shutdowns between 2017 and 2018 as the government forces intensified counterinsurgency operations. “We have been hollowed out from the inside,” Mr. Sofi said angrily.
Mr. Sofi recalled the time when the city bustled with people thronging the markets, even in lockdowns previously enforced for political reasons. But this time, he said, “It feels like there is no Eid.”