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Covid-19 killing small highway jobs in Nepal

Covid-19 killing small highway jobs in Nepal

The workshop of Nitesh Mehta on the East-West Highway (Mahendra Highway) in Inaruwa, Sunsari, used to be packed with motorcycles. On a normal day, he would have no time to sit back and sip tea, his favorite drink. But these days, the workshop wears a deserted look, just like the abutting highway. He has all the leisure in the world but, alas, no business.

The tea stall of Gunjan Chaudhary, about 500 meters from Mehta’s workshop, is almost as deserted. In the few hours he opens in the morning and evening, he serves hardly 10 percent of the regular customers who used to throng his shop.

Other small roadside businesses have similar stories for the obvious reason: the prolonged lockdown.

Province 1, where Inaruwa is located, is relatively better off in terms of road network, with three north-south highways—Mechi, Koshi, Sagarmatha—intersecting the cross-country Mahendra Highway at different places. The province has a diverse terrain, ranging from Kechana Kalan, Nepal’s lowest point (70 meters above sea level) to Mt. Everest, the highest point on the planet (8,848 meters). It has long been Nepal’s political, academic, industrial, and commercial hub.

Due to high public mobility, small businesses along the highways and inner roads have always thrived in the province. But the situation now is bleak. A reliable figure on their total business, however, is unavailable as these small shops are outside Nepal’s formal economy.

Kishor Pyakurel, who owns Ujjwal Dairy and Coffee House in Itahari, another major business center of the province on the East-West Highway, claims that his business had been booming because of ‘competitive prices and services’ on offer—before the lockdown wrecked it.

“We sell mohi [buttermilk]coffee, green tea, and fruit salad. But due to the lockdown, we haven’t been able to sell anything. The coffee machine gets damaged if it is not used for long,” laments Pyakurel.

Pyakurel’s customers are diverse—bankers, government employees, teachers, police personnel, NGO workers, students, locals, and sometimes travelers from nearby places. Many of them hail from Inaruwa, Jhumka, and Dharan. They have stopped coming after the lockdown. “I used to import coffee from India. Now even if the lockdown is lifted, it will be hard to get,” he adds.

Rajesh KC, who runs a readymade store in Nepaltar, Ilam, also has been tallying significant losses of late, and is worried about its sustenance. Travelers passing on the Mechi Highway to visit Pathivara and Panchthar, as well as people from nearby areas travelling for trade, constituted half of his regular customers. They are not coming anymore, neither are local students who frequently bought from him.

“My summer stock of raincoats, shoes, gumboots, bags, and umbrellas has gone to waste. By next year, they will be damaged,” KC says. He used to make around 5,000-6,000 rupees a day from the store, and nearly all that income has now been lost.

Bipin Acharya, owner of Family Sekuwa Corner at Padajungi, Jhapa, has a similar story. He had started his eatery with bank loans on a rented piece of land. He has to pay the rent and give salary to helpers even when there is no business, and he fears the banks will start pressing him to repay as soon as the lockdown ends. “I had hoped to make some profit this year. But everything is uncertain now.”

Acharya’s customers include drivers and helpers of buses and trucks. The business was thriving. “I had started getting orders for parties and events from government and private offices. I used to pay back bank loans in daily instalments of Rs 2,100. And I earned well to look after the family. Now, it’s all gone,” he rues.

As the situation remains uncertain, Pyakurel, the coffee shop owner, is shifting to mushroom farming as an alternative income source. But KC, the readymade-store owner, and Acharya, who runs the sekewa corner, have not been able to try something new.

“Starting a new business during the lockdown is tough here. And you have to start from scratch. I am rather hoping the lockdown ends soon,” says KC. Likewise, for Acharya, taking up another business is not an option. “I have expertise in sekuwa. I don't think I can do anything else immediately.”