Asia’s biggest air-cooler market offers a Dickensian sight. The gate’s driveway is rutty. The clock on the clock tower doesn’t work. Mechanics drill holes into steel plates. Labourers haul cargoes in hand-pulled carts. All around are arranged thousands of air-coolers, electric geysers, washing machines, water pumps and steel trunks, sometimes packed in colourful boxes.
Next to Ajmeri Gate in central Delhi, Kamla Market came up in 1951 to provide livelihood to the Partition refugees. Named after Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s wife, Kamla Nehru, it soon became the country’s premier market for air-coolers.
“Our coolers go all over India,” says Ramu Mistry, a senior mechanic. Thirty years ago, he ran away from his village in UP. Coming out of New Delhi railway station, Ajmeri Gate side, he stepped into Kamla Market and never left.
Then, the bazaar was less congested. It manufactured electrical appliances, not just assembled them from different parts, as is the case now. Each shop had an in-built ‘mini factory’. In the late 1990s, stricter anti-pollution enforcement forced the closure of these manufacturing units. That was the second setback to the market. The first was when a part of the workforce left for Inderlok Market in Sarai Rohilla in central-west Delhi.
“But our coolers are better,” insists Mistry. Reduced to assembling the different parts that makes up a cooler, the mechanic misses the time when he himself manufactured them. “We made coolers that would last for 30 years,” says Mistry. “Now there is no demand for superior units, which are pricier.” The price of plastic coolers in Kamla Market ranges from Rs 800 to Rs 3,000; metal coolers range from Rs 1,000 to Rs 12,000.
In 2006, Chinese goods entered the market. “We are unable to manufacture as cheaply as the Chinese,” says Ashok Batra, general secretary, Kamla Market Welfare Association. “Local production plummeted; people lost their jobs.”
There are 271 shops in Kamla Market, which support 1,000 labourers. Mostly immigrants from UP and Bihar, these men have no other home. During the day, they assemble the appliances. In the night, they cook and sleep in the market corridors. Their unprivileged circumstances make it difficult to believe that these men could be familiar with the mechanics of fans and pumps.
“They are no engineers but they are excellent labourers,” says Batra. “We shopkeepers direct them in the technicalities.” But aren’t the shopkeepers not engineers, either? “Yes, we haven’t done engineering,” laughs Batra. “But it’s in our blood.”