Delhi’s weekly markets, a window to the city’s culture, back in business
New Delhi: As it started raining on Sunday afternoon, Mohammad Ishmail quickly ran into his four-square-metre residence at the Jagdamba Camp slum cluster near Chirag Dilli to check if the roof was leaking once again. Inside, there was a mattress with no bedsheet, a plastic chair, a table made of plywood and an intriguing assortment of plastic soap cases, tiny mirrors, pocket-sized combs, cheap wallets and razors lay spread over a thin rug on the floor.
“There is more inside the trunk,” said the 38-year-old pointing towards a metal trunk that looked heavy, as he quickly fixed a plastic sheet covering a tiny hole on the tin-ceiling of his residence in the slum.
Ishmail is a travelling merchant, who keeps moving from one weekly market – popularly called Hafta Bazar – to another in the city in usual times for a living. At a hyperlocal level, most such Hafta Bazars are often named after the day of the week on which they operate – such as Mangal Bazar for weekly markets operating on Tuesdays, Budh Bazar for those operating on Wednesdays, and so on.
Most such markets are closed for months in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ishmail expects to be back in business from Monday, and the products that lay spread on the floor were fished out of the same trunk. He said, “Tomorrow, I shall be at the Mehrauli hafta bazar selling these goods. You can find me there. On Tuesdays, I am at Usmanpur. Wednesdays in Chirag Delhi. It is good that the government has finally taken a decision in our favour.”
On Sunday, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) issued an order allowing all weekly markets in the city to operate from this Monday – essentially putting into implementation an announcement by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal the previous day, stressing on how these markets have to be preserved as large number of poor people depend on them for their livelihood.
On August 2, the Delhi High Court asked the city government to consider reopening of weekly markets.
As Delhi witnessed its worst Covid-19 wave, which left the city’s health infrastructure overwhelmed, the government implemented a lockdown on April 19. As Covid-19 cases started to decline, the government started with a phased relaxation process from May 31 and by mid-June they allowed one weekly market to operate per day per municipal zone.
Delhi has 12 municipal zones, said a senior official in the government’s revenue department, which essentially means 84 weekly markets have more or less been functional in the city for the last two months.
“But Delhi has more than 2,500 small and big weekly markets in total . From traders to suppliers and labourers, they engage lakhs of people. Around 250 such markets are quite prominent in the city including the ones in Shastri Park, Red Fort, Yamuna Pushta, Mandawali, Vasant Kunj and Karkardooma. So, the one market per day per municipal zone means many of them were suspended and the traders associated with those markets were in distress,” said Arbind Singh, national coordinator of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), an advocacy group.
The lockdown imposed because of the pandemic threw thousands into distress and Ishmail was among them. He recalled how he had to send his wife, who is a domestic worker, and nine-year-old son, to his extended family which resides at a village in Bihar’s East Champaran district.
Not having the weekly markets functional near their residences was trouble for customers too.
“Not having the weekly market functional in the neighbourhood was quite a problem. They offer a wide range of household essentials and we depend on that. But, yes, people should follow Covid-19 regulations without any compromise,” said Ganga Devi, a resident of New Ashok Nagar neighbourhood in east Delhi where three weekly markets in the vicinity have been non-functional for the last two months.
Weekly markets in Delhi sell a wide range of products – rolling pins, kitchen knives, plastic toys, woollens, toiletries, garments, bangles, lipsticks, face creams, razors, stationeries, vegetables, fruits, spices, cooking oil, pickles, papad and what not. They largely cater to lower-income group households.
“I see them more as a cultural thing,” said Rana Safvi, a Delhi-based historian and writer. “Where do you find bangle sellers in Delhi these days who used to walk around in localities selling their merchandise? In the weekly markets, you see such merchants. Traditionally a lot of them offered space to village residents in Delhi to display handmade products. While those rural areas turned into urban villages, such weekly markets remained. In most of them, the traders know their regular clients and they often form a bond.”
It is quite likely that such bonds between merchants and clients have helped the former read the demographic demands better and innovate. For instance, several weekly markets in the city which function in areas inhabited by large numbers of people from Bengali and Odiya communities sell fish, several of them located in areas inhabited by North-East Indian communities sell packed dried fish and bamboo shoots.
Film-maker and writer Sohail Hashmi highlighted historical roots of Delhi’s weekly markets. He said, “When contending armies fought for the control of Delhi, the residents of its villages had to suffer violence. It is said that Mohammad bin Tughlaq once erected a wall around his new capital city of Bijay Mandal, which is located near current-day localities Begum Pur, Sarvodya enclave and Sarvapriya Vihar. It would be a wall that would enclose within its folds his fort and all the surrounding villages and their lands. He named it Jahan Panah. A large part of the wall was demolished around 20 years ago to widen the Aurobindo Marg. Another part of the wall runs along the present-day Jahapanah Forest. The Sat Pula on the Saket-Sheikh Sarai Road near the Chirag Dilli drain too was a part of the wall but no trace of it remains there now. Tughlaq, however, died before the wall could be completed.``
“The villages enclosed within the walls and those in its peripheries continued to exist for centuries producing all that they needed to survive or buying what they did not, from the weekly markets, held on fixed days of the week near each village. These markets were run by small travelling salesmen who set up shop at a new location each day of the week, coming back to each location once a week. Each travelling merchant catered to a fixed set of six or seven villages within a specific part of what were then the environs of Delhi. Much has changed in the wares that the hafta bazaar merchants sell today; the customers have also changed and yet much remains in these markets that needs to be preserved,” said Hashmi.