At Opera House, business is illegal if it’s small | india | Hindustan Times
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At Opera House, business is illegal if it’s small

A day ahead of the first anniversary of the 13/7 blasts, I happened to walk along one of the blast spots, the Mumbai Diamond Merchants Association Chowk at Opera House. The ‘chowk’ is actually a tiny street behind Pancharatna building and Prasad Chambers, the hubs of the diamond trade, and is always impossibly crowded, because merchants and agents conduct negotiations in the open and strike big deals in the middle of the street.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2012 01:00 IST
Vaibhav Purandare

A day ahead of the first anniversary of the 13/7 blasts, I happened to walk along one of the blast spots, the Mumbai Diamond Merchants Association Chowk at Opera House. The ‘chowk’ is actually a tiny street behind Pancharatna building and Prasad Chambers, the hubs of the diamond trade, and is always impossibly crowded, because merchants and agents conduct negotiations in the open and strike big deals in the middle of the street.

Not much had changed from a year ago. The traders, hundreds of them, had occupied space not just on either side of the street but even in the centre of it; the restaurants, tea stalls and paan shops were doing brisk business; a vehicle from DB Marg police station stood in a corner, cops seated inside it, ostensibly keeping a watch on all the action; and even the chairs at the Sarvajanik Vachanalaya, a small public library situated in a corner of the lane, were occupied by traders taking a break, although nobody was reading anything.

However, the hawkers — the sandwich-sellers, the dosa-wallahs, the pani-puri vendors — had all vanished. I asked a diamond trader where they’d gone. “They were all evicted after the blast,” he said. It was the BMC and police who evicted them. They have now moved the Bombay High Court, demanding they be allowed to restart business there. They have said the BMC had deleted Opera House as a hawking zone, but the Supreme Court had in 2003 ordered status quo, thus allowing them to run their stalls; yet, after the blast, they were forced to leave.

Wondering what the traders themselves thought of the hawkers’ removal, I called up Bharat Shah, president of the Diamond Merchants’ Association. “It [the eviction] was done for reasons of security. The area is now better and clean,” he said. I told him the place was clogged up nevertheless. “It’s okay for businessmen to be there, not others,” he said. When I said the traders themselves had enjoyed eating at the stalls, he said, “There are plenty of restaurants and stalls around. They can eat there.”

So big business is welcome; the hawker, a small-time entity starting out on a business, isn’t. The hawker is an encroacher, the trader who does the same an entrepreneur. The hawker has had to leave immedziately; the diamond market has still not shifted to the newly-constructed diamond bourse at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, for reasons best known to the merchants. The hawker faces instant action; the authorities don’t probe complaints of violations inside Pancharatna with half as much enthusiasm. And the hawker has no means of livelihood if his stall is taken away. The big fish have their investments; they play the securities market all the time; and they have altered the very meaning of housing in Mumbai from shelter to speculation.

Moreover, if the authorities’ idea was to decongest the place, that certainly hasn’t happened. But their action fits into a pattern we see all over Mumbai: the strengthening of the status of the rich at the expense of the poor as well as the lower-middle and middle classes.

The notion that a rich trader is entitled to conduct business in the open, but not a hawker, is iniquitous. The law is supposed to treat both equally, so both should go if they choke up the lane – not the weaker and more vulnerable of them, while a police van stands by to provide security to the other.

The big fish will win, in the end. The Indian State seems to be even more on their side than it used to be.