Even though Mumbai’s annual winter clothing markets are teeming with shoppers, they lack the soul of commerce – Tibetans, the majority of whom have stayed away this year for fear of Covid-19.
Compared to the pre-pandemic years, when nearly 300 traders from Tibet traveled to Maharashtra’s capital to sell their winter clothes, barely 50 people set up their stalls this year.
Chilay Sangmo, 38, is one of 20 Tibetan vendors who have set up their stalls under the Parel Bridge. Fearing Covid-19, she left her two children, aged 2 and 4, with her in-laws in Hubli, Karnataka.
Showing their photos to the Indian Express, she said: âLast year we couldn’t come to Mumbai due to the pandemic. We had to survive on agriculture. Most of the time, we only ate fermented rice. So, I’m going to have to sell the stocks to gain some financial stability. “
Since the 1970s, every winter a group of Tibetan refugees like Sangmo has migrated to Mumbai to sell Tibetan woolen sweaters and other clothing. Most of them are based in Karnataka.
Chunky Dolakar, 35, who has been visiting Mumbai since 1987 when she was very young and accompanied her parents, says: âAs a child, I was responsible for making sure that customers pay the amount. We were looking forward to these four months (November to February).
Expecting a lukewarm response from customers amid the pandemic, traders this time only got 40% of their usual stock. The late arrival of winter in the city further affected their sales.
Before the pandemic, traders were making up to Rs 10,000 per day with a profit margin of 15%. However, now they are struggling to earn even 5,000 rupees per day and the profit margin has fallen below 5%.
Another factor that has plagued Tibetans is competition from traders in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh who sell their goods at much lower prices, forcing them to cut prices as well.
âTibetan wool is produced from Changphel, a highland sheep. They are rich in lanolin, which makes it unique compared to industrial artificial wool, which is cheap. Local traders can afford to sell a garment for Rs 200, which we cannot. But customers don’t understand the difference, âsaid Zhoigar Doma, a trader.
Another thing that plagues the Mumbai experience for Tibetan traders is the racial slurs to which they are regularly subjected. âWith the onset of the pandemic, the frequency of such incidents has worsened,â said Lhundup, who has set up his booth near the CST station.
Most of the traders, however, expressed their gratitude to the Mumbai police for cooperating with them this year to help them earn a living. âMost years the police kicked us out, but they’ve been nice this year. They know how much we depend on this business to survive in the midst of the pandemic, âLhundup said.
Tibetans depend on the profits they make in Mumbai to celebrate the Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, in February.
âLast year we had no money to celebrate Losar. So we promised our kids that we will come back with enough money to celebrate this year’s Losar. I hope we can keep this promise, âsaid Rana Pratap, one of the vendors.