By Tenzin Phende, Photo-editor
Though the new year has set in, the Tibetan sweater sellers in Parel, Mumbai doesn’t see signs of good times ahead. The month, which usually registers sales of Rs 3,000 per day, is currently witnessing pitiable sales of Rs 800 to Rs 2,000 per day.
The winter business months last up to four months, between October, an end to February mid. The current season seems bleak for them, as sales are yet to pick up.
“There is no guarantee of a winter in Mumbai. Even in January, the weather is so hot. But since it is a huge city teeming with people, we manage to find some buyers every day,” said Passang Lhamo, a sweater seller from Mundgod who has been coming to the city for the last eleven years.
“There is very little sale nowadays,” she added, with a hint of sadness.
Most of the woolen sweater sellers are the females and interestingly the matriarchs of the house. They source out all the items from the owners and sell it in different cities and towns earning a fraction of the profits as commission.
Based in Karnataka, most of these sellers in Mumbai are from Doeguling Tibetan Settlement in Mundgod.
They source out most of their stocks from Ludhiana, Delhi and Chetok (situated between Nepal and Tibet). Bank loans play an important role in their trade.
In Mumbai, there are at least 180 such Tibetan woolen sweater sellers, of which around 80 are at Victoria Terminus and more than 40 are at Parel. The remaining are scattered around Nana Chowk, Chembur, Dadar, Mumbai Central, Mulund, Sion and Grant road.
The woes of dreadful sales this year was compounded by the recent Elphinstone tragedy which made the situation even worse for these small time vendors.
“This year has been bad for us. Due to the Elphinstone Bridge stampede that killed several people, the BMC issued a notice banning woolen sweater sellers from Victoria Terminus,” Yangchen, a sweater vendor from Kollegal, remarked.
“Victorious Terminus (VT) has been the largest Tibetan woolen sellers’ location. We have been playing hide and seek with Municipal staff these days to do our business. Unlike last year, we don’t have a place to sell our woolen clothes,” she explained.
For Lobsang Choedon, a middle-aged mother of two from Mundgod, she fears for the future prospects of the business.
“From next year, the roads in Parel will be broadened to reduce traffic congestion in the area. So, it will be more difficult for us to find spots to set up shops then,” she said.
The clothes on offer at these makeshift stalls include caps, sweaters, mufflers, gloves, shawls and jackets. And the prices are a bargain, from Rs 20 to Rs 300. Jackets are available at Rs 400 when the nearby shops sell the same clothes for more than a thousand.
Since 1959, the Indian government has helped more than 1,30,000 Tibetans who have escaped into the country from Tibet to settle in the country.
“Although we have been selling clothes and sweater on these footpaths for several decades, we have not been removed by the municipal corporation as we are refugees. But now, we are facing a dire situation due to strict rules that accompany development,” Tempa, another seller confided.
“Every year before the winter sets in, three persons are chosen on a rotational basis every year to procure licenses and the necessary paper works for the makeshift shops,” he explained.
“I sell seasonal goods. I buy them in bulk and sell them, pocketing a minuscule commission from the proceeds. The winter clothes are made in Ludhiana and brought here,” he said.
Speaking about the locals, he said that the locals are extremely supportive, but he lamented the ever-rising costs of city life. “Earlier, we had over 400 Tibetans selling goods here. However, the number doesn’t cross 150 these days,” he said, referring to sellers shifting to other cities with better profit margins.
Every year as winter sets in, Tibetans scatter across cities of India to make a living selling sweaters and woolen clothes to Indian buyers.
Before embarking on their annual winter sojourn, they procure licenses from both the Central Tibetan Administration and the Indian government to carry out the economic activity.
Once the three-month period gets over, these sweater sellers return to their settlements in time for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. And until the next winter, they live on the profits earned from the sweater selling business that has become the prime vocation for over 50% of Tibetans living in India.