At the centre of a college campus’ heart are a bunch of people that bring colour and character to its cold bricks and wet cement. The students, professors, administrators- yes. But also, all the small business and workers in and around the campus that becomes as much a trademark to the college as its placements, clubs and faculty.
The little tea stall at the juncture, the gardeners who maintain the lawns for your social media, the caterers at the canteen with their signature rajma chawal, the photocopier without whom you would barely pass your examinations, the chaat shop at the back of your college, that also happens to be the sweetest spot for a bunk.
Every single one of these small businesses in and around your college contributes to the sense of nostalgia you experience during the pandemic, due to the closure of our universities. So, while you hold warm memories of good days in your head- memories that they contributed to, it would be a good time to ask yourself: How are they faring now? Are they able to feed their families? Sustain their medical bills, if required? Would they ever be able to continue their business-as-usual post the pandemic?
“My parents started the canteen business about 16 years ago, we’ve catered to multiple schools and colleges across Delhi University. Since the lockdown, our canteen has been closed. So, for over a year, we had no source of income. The only way we could make it through the year, which was very, very difficult- was by means of some funds that were already due to my parents, along with the money that I brought in through my internships,” says a student at Delhi University, whose parents run a catering business.
The digital divide we so commonly speak of is not just limited to stakeholders in the education sector, but also small businesses that depend on it. All of these businesses that could not afford digital transformation and transition into an online service provider have been wiped out by the deadly pandemic, leaving those dependent on them with debt and financial insecurity, while also threatening college heritage and culture.
“Jab 2020 mein pehli baar lockdown hua tha, tabhi humara dhanda accha chal raha tha. Toh college ke bacchon ke sath milkar humne kaafi paisa social work ki taraf dia tha, langar organise kare the aur tabhi madad karna humein humara farz laga. Lekin thode samay baad humari aarthik sthithi bohot hi zyaada bigad gayi thi, college khulne ka koi naam nahi tha
(Before the first lockdown in 2020, my business was doing well. I collaborated with many students from college and donated and raised money for social work, organized langars, and I felt then that it was my social responsibility to help. But after a while, my financial situation had worsened a lot, and there seemed to be no signs of the colleges reopening),” says Rinku Ji, a photocopier at Lady Shri Ram College, who has worked at the institution for almost a decade.
For many daily wage workers and owners of small businesses around campus, college students and people from the university space were their primary or often- the only source of income.
“Humara koi aur dhandha nahi, hum jo bhi kamaate hain college mein dukaan chalakar hi kamaate the, par abhi hum sabhi ki aarthik awastha buri aur samay mushkil. Par yeh mushkil samay mein college ki bacchiyon ne humara bohot saath dia, aur bacchon ki goodwill se hi humara abhi guzaara chal raha hai.” (I do not have any other business, whatever I used to earn is by running my photocopy business at college, but now our economic condition is bad and times are tough. However, the college students have been extremely supportive, and it’s through their goodwill that my business is again up and running,) he adds.
While the students have been doing whatever they can to help these business owners, the question of help from the administration looms. To this, the owner of a college canteen business in Delhi University says, “No, the college has not provided any financial aid, in fact, they have made it even more difficult by demanding rent.”
Unlike salaried staff, administrators and other workers who are in contractual obligation with the colleges, these private-run businesses do not have any form of social security and have received little or no aid by college authorities, despite several of them being within college campus for many years. With little or no avenue to earn an income, many of these small enterprises turned to the student community for aid. Since, the student community has been actively involved in organising fund-raisers, along with engaging with their business in their best capacity.
“Jab humari sthithi bohot hi kharab thi, tabhi hamare college ki ek student ne humari madad kari, aur humne saari notes ki copy courier karna chalu kara. Fir bhi, jitna hum abhi kama rahe hain, who college ke samay ke 10% se bhi kam hain. Kabhi kabar bacchein paise dena bhool jaate hain, ya kisi kaaran nahi de paatein hain. Magar hum kuch nahi bolte kyunki hum chahte hain ki yeh notes har ek bacchi ko pohchein
(When my condition was very poor, one of the college students helped me by facilitating an online courier service of notes and readings. Yet, what I make now is less than 10% of what I used to make. Many times, students forget to pay for the material or are unable to pay for it due to some reason. But I never bring it up, because I want these notes to reach every student),” added Rinku Ji.
Some businesses such as small book shops within the college are worried about the long term impact of digital learning on their business. Will students ever purchase physical copies of textbooks and readings since it is all widely available in the form of pdfs? Will they continue to buy stationery from local stores or completely shift to online mediums such as Amazon and Flipkart?
“Jab see yeh Corona chaalu hua hai, sabhi students apne mobile ya tablet mein hi apni reading aur books rakh letein hai. Abhi itna samay hogya hai toh aadat bhi lag gayi hogi, to abhi wapas kitab pakadkar padhenge ya nahi humko nahi maaalum. Aasha kartein hein ki asli kitabon ka mehtva na bhul jaaein bacchein
(Since the pandemic has started, all the students have started keeping their books and readings on their mobile or tablet. Now they must be accustomed to it too, so now we don’t know if they’ll ever read from physical copies again. I hope they never forget the value of reading from real books),” says Shyam Ji, an owner of a bookshop in the Delhi University campus.
The canteen space has never been just about food. It is a safe space for students to assemble, unwind, indulge in childlike banter. Since the virus and its mutants are here to stay for a bit longer, assembling is dangerous and thereby any economic activity that relies on people connecting and collecting is bound to feel threatened.
Citing their apprehension regarding the future of their catering business, Eric, 19, says, “After the pandemic, I don’t know if students will come to the canteen like before, there is still a lot of uncertainty. However when colleges reopen, it will help us get back on our feet, it will make things a lot better. We’re really hoping that it will be as it was before, or get better. We can only hope right now…”
Owing to the uncertainty induced by the pandemic, many small businessmen such as owners of momo shops, xerox stores as well as iconic book stores- that have been historically been a part of university culture, have returned to their native towns and villages. Whether they will be able to return to the bustling campus post covid is something that we find hard to predict.
In these difficult times, where the dent in the economic conditions of the enterprises is distinct, it is imperative that we do as much as we can collectively to aid hard-hit communities. Reach out to the tea stall owner whose store you frequented more than your classes. Ask if they need help, ask what you can do. It is more important than ever that we engage with our community to ensure that we all tide through this, keeping the differences in access and privilege in mind.
They were always there with a glass of cutting chai and a plate of hot Momos after an exhausting day of coursework. Well- it’s been an exhausting year for these small businesses. – it’s time we are there for them too!