The crowds that fill shopping areas ahead of the Diwali candle festival on Saturday raise hopes for India’s needy business community after months of lockdown losses but also spawn fears of a massive coronavirus rise.
People who have limited their purchases to essentials for several months seem to be in a festive mood and traders are letting it go, says Praveen Khandelwal, Secretary General of the Confederation of All India Traders.
“The last three days have seen a huge increase in the decline of customers in the shopping markets for festival shopping,” he said.
But among the millions of shoppers, a large number of people are seen ignoring masks and social distancing norms in major Indian cities and towns. India has confirmed more than 8.7 million cases of coronavirus infection, the second most in the world and more than 128,600 deaths.
In neighboring Nepal, another dominant Hindu nation, people seem to have responded better to a government’s appeal to celebrate the festival indoors and only with immediate family and avoid large gatherings or public celebrations.
Many areas in the Himalayan state have banned the tradition of “Deusi-Bhailo” where groups of girls and boys go to the neighbor’s house to sing and dance and in return get money and sweets. The festival is spread over five days in Nepal with different days to worship crows, gods, cows and brothers.
India’s festival season this year began in a subdued tone with the Dussehra celebrations last month, but traders say that now people have come out of homes and flocked to shopping areas in key Indian cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and Patna, this week .
Most people buy flowers, sweets, dried fruit, candles and lamps for Diwali. The Hindu celebrations of Dussehra, Diwali and Durga Puja in October and November each year are also an opportunity to throw on big ticket items such as gold, homes and cars as well as clothes, smartphones and electronics.
Traders are hoping Diwali festival sales will reach $ 8 million, Khandelwal said.
But many say they try not to let their hopes get too high, as the crowds can seek bargains and people are careful to spend their money during the pandemic.
“If we compare our business with last year, it is only 40 percent right now. Sixty percent of customers are not there. Because everyone is afraid of Covid-19, says Jitender Sachdeva, a store owner in New Delhi’s exclusive Sarojini market.
“I had gone to the market and there is a lot of crowds because of Diwali. So I think it (coronavirus) can spread more, “said Payal Jha, a 20-year-old student.
India’s Hindu festivals draw tens of thousands of people, packed in temples, shopping districts and family gatherings exchanging gifts.
Warnings about virus recurrence
On Diwali night, people lit up the sky with firecrackers – their smoke causes air pollution that takes days to clear. New Delhi Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal has banned firecrackers this year. A thick smog lingered over the Indian capital and its suburbs on Friday, fueled by smoke from raging agricultural fires.
Health experts warn of tight festival celebrations causing a virus outbreak that is hitting India’s healthcare system. New Delhi has already seen increasing cases with more than 7,000 daily in recent days and an increasing number of deaths as well.
In exclusive areas, authorities and trafficking authorities have introduced coronavirus protocols, but the love of people waiting to enter was a major cause for concern for traders. There are announcements over the addresses to wear masks and keep a safe distance.
One bright spot is that domestic brands are booming from a trend to boycott cheap Chinese-made statues of Hindu deities, festive LED lights and electronics in favor of locally made products along India’s border with China.
With this boycott, China will lose about $ 5.3 million worth of business in the Indian market this festive season, said BC Bhartia, president of the Confederation of All India Traders.
For India’s nearly 70 million traders, who employ about 400 million people, an upturn could not come fast enough.