On a normal afternoon in Delhi, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country, office workers would be seen emerging from their buildings and head to one of the many tapris (tea stalls) lining the streets outside offices. They’d be looking for a cup of piping hot tea and maybe a plate of greasy samosas and bhajias (potato fritters), too.
Stepping out into the street with colleagues to share a milky tea with a hint of spices such as ginger or cardamom is an Indian office ritual. These stalls, carts and shops are vital hang-outs of office-goers who come to take a break, gossip about their bosses or discuss personal lives.
But on 24 March, India went into a three-month nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19. Like so many other countries, workplaces closed down, and employees got familiar with working from home while the beloved tea shops and stalls pulled down their shutters.
Now, the lockdown is easing up state by state, but tapris chai and food sellers remain few and far between. Those who have started operating again have seen their customer numbers plummet, with office workers still being encouraged to work remotely. Even those who are reporting to work aren’t taking the risk of socialising at tea stalls, having been encouraged to maintain social distancing.
Indians take their tea, known as chai, seriously. India is the second largest producer of tea in the world (behind China) and, according to the Tea Board of India, 80% of the tea is consumed domestically. Close to 88% of households drink tea. It’s an anytime-drink in India, and more common than coffee.
‘It becomes a ritual’
Arjun Kishore is a senior manager at a healthcare company in the city of Gurugram, about 30km from Delhi, and pre-coronavirus would take five chai and sutta (cigarettes) breaks each day. There was a row of street-food hawkers outside his building, where crowds would congregate at any time of the day.
Indians have a very different concept of public spaces - Arul Kani
“I moved to this company a few months ago, and that’s how you get to know people, says Kishore. “The informal chats about who we are outside of work happen here. We also talk about stress and our bad experiences with our bosses, but this is also to [learn] about someone’s personal life.”
Dr Maitri Chand, a Delhi-based therapist, says that these short breaks can be rejuvenating on multiple levels. “There’s an environmental change when you step out. You’re out of the glass and concrete, in the open, with direct sunlight. It becomes a ritual to take this break and vent,” she explains. Sharing common experiences also brings people closer, she adds, pointing to research that shows when people have friendly relationships at work, they're more productive. They are motivated to go to work because they know they will get to chat with their colleagues and they feel less alone.
Bengaluru-based social scientist Arul Kani believes Indians “have a very different concept of public spaces compared to Americans or Europeans”, and there is a culture of chatting over food in communal areas. “Public spaces work as equalisers. Most people have unrestricted access to these. Everyday relationships are formed at these tea shops, whether it is colleagues who are sharing tea and samosas or university students debating politics.”
In the city of Pune, in the west-central state of Maharashtra, research and development manager Juhi Desai would stop at a tapri for lemon tea with a colleague. They would often share a bun maska (soft bread lathered with generous layers of butter) big enough for two people. “This is how we would unwind,” she says. “There are some things we can’t talk about at work because [my colleague] is my junior, so we would have tea and hang out there.”
Most Indian corporations have traditionally had a hierarchical management model in which the difference in status between managers and employees can make it difficult to talk freely in the office. A 2019 study showed that a toxic work culture in India is one of the top reasons for employee burnout, with long hours, lack of work-life balance and demanding workloads as contributing factors. Escaping to a tapri often becomes a safe space to discuss life inside and outside the office.
The quest for survival
The coronavirus and its subsequent lockdown has impacted India’s ecosystem of street vendors. But this disruption goes deeper than the loss of an everyday chai break.
In the days following the first lockdown announcement, the country witnessed a mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities. Daily wage-workers such as street vendors, labourers, construction and domestic workers – most of whom came from rural areas of India – saw their jobs and chance to earn money in the cities evaporate. Many were forced to travel several hundred kilometres on foot to get to their hometowns because public transport wasn’t available. It was a desperate situation for those who lived hand to mouthon their wages from the city. Some never made it home, dying on the way there.
Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks, a food-tourism company, explains that most of the street-food vendors come from some of the more underdeveloped states dependent on agriculture such as Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. His company gives guided walking tours around the foodie spots in Old Delhi. “Even those who work in Old Delhi’s street food shops are from Bihar. They have left, so there’s no way to run these businesses.”
Kishore Chaudhary, a chai and food seller in Gurugram, wasn’t allowed to open during the lockdowns. Most of his fellow shop owners left for their villages. Earning 30,000 rupees a month ($394; £320), he used to get an influx of around 500 customers a day, with his shop set up outside offices from 0700-1100. When the first phase of lifting lockdown was announced, he went back to his spot, but the days were long and lingering with just two or three customers. He has once again shut his shop unable to sustain his business.
In west Delhi, tea-seller Pavan Kumar has lost most of his clientele; he also only gets a couple of customers a day. Most are truck and auto-rickshaw drivers, who don’t have the money to pay the full price of 10 rupee (13¢; 24p) for a cup of tea.
But will the effects of the coronavirus end the tapri culture altogether? Sapra doesn’t think so, and is confident that migrant food sellers will eventually return to the cities. “It’s not just about entertainment; it’s a necessity,” he says, adding that the same earning opportunities aren’t available in their villages.
A changing landscape
When India’s tea-stall culture does eventually bounce back, the vendors will have to adapt to the ‘new normal’. “We will have to train them to wear masks, [use] sanitisers, accept digital payment, [use] disposable cups and have means for waste management,” says Sapra.
The National Association of Street Vendors of India is planning to train street vendors to help them revive their businesses, and the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has announced a scheme to give all street vendors affordable loans of up to 10,000 rupees ($132; £105) to be used as working capital help get them back on their feet. “They usually work with a small capital base taken on very high interest rates (sometimes as high as 1% per day, amounting to nearly 400% per annum) from informal sources,” according to a government press statement.
It’s not just about entertainment; it’s a necessity – Anubhav Sapra
Social scientist Kani suspects there will be more lasting effects from the pandemic. She predicts that people won’t want to hang around tapris for as long as they used to, so the conversations and opportunities to network will be shorter. Besides, it will be difficult to have a chai and sutta break with masks on. “Work spaces are also changing…. corporate executives used to hang out at these chai stalls with people they didn’t directly work with. With new workplace rules in place, that’s also going to be difficult.”
Dr Chand points out that Indians are resilient and resourceful, and will find new and creative ways to get by. In 2016, the Indian prime minister announced that small bank notes would be removed from circulation to eliminate fake currency, curb tax evasions and promote cashless transactions. While street vendors were initially hit hard – many rose to the challenge and started accepting digital payments.
The need for social interaction and human connections have made tapris an indelible part of the office culture, so when the beloved tea stall does eventually reappear – in whatever form it may take – many will once again find comfort in a hot cup of tea with colleagues.