‘Notorious’: Another tryst with infamy for Delhi’s Palika Bazar
Last week, Baljit Singh Kohli’s office was inundated with phone calls after Palika Bazar was named in 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy by Office of the United States Trade Representative ( USTR). “A lot of them were shopkeepers of the market, but nobody seemed to know abut the agency, or what it said about the market,” says Kohli.
“Palika Bazar, the underground market in Delhi is reportedly well-known for the trade of counterfeit products,” according the review by the US agency, which has also listed the Tank Road market in Delhi’s Karol Bagh besides Heera Panna in Mumbai, Kidderpore in Kolkata, and Snapdeal, one of India’s largest e-commerce platforms.
Kohli, chairman, Palika Bazar Shopkeepers Welfare Association, countered the assessment. “Our market has completely transformed from an electronics market to a garments hub in the past decade. Most of what we sell now is made in India and some of it could be Chinese like in any other market in the city. So where is the question of counterfeiting and piracy?” he says.
The listing by USTR was another chapter in the controversial history of India’s first air-conditioned underground market. The brainchild of late Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi, Palika Bazar was built by the NDMC during the Emergency in a record time of less than a year and opened in 1979. Initially, the shops were allotted to post-Partition refugees who had their shops on Panchkuian Road.
“When the market opened in 1979, it mostly had handicraft, gift shops, and many restaurants such as Hackman’s and Tiffin Top; and Lords, the famous ice-cream parlour. However, there were only a few customers,” says Darshan Lal Kakkar, 65, president of the market association, who runs a Forex shop in Palika Bazar.“But the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi came as a big boost to the business here.”
By the mid-1980s, as the popularity of audio and video cassettes grew, many gifts and garments shops in the central hall of the market began selling electronics items. And by the late 1980s, the market became a favourite haunt of those looking for video cassettes of Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters, video cassette players, and a few years later for Walkman, Discman, cameras, digital diaries, gaming consoles — all imported or smuggled from Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.
Not just electronics, the bazar was also a popular place for shoppers of Timotei shampoo, Converse shoes and many other foreign brands in the pre-globalisation era. Many shops like Clydes that sold heavy metal band merchandise commanded a large fan following. And, in summers, many Delhiites descended the steps of the market simply to escape the heat.
The first major blow to the market’s reputation came in the mid-90s when there was a major police raid on the shops selling video cassettes, and many shop keepers, who were allegedly selling pirated movies, were arrested. That was also the time when the market gained an unsavoury reputation for being an underground porn hub.
While Sanjay Arora , a shopkeeper in the market, says adult movies were mostly sold by hawkers who came to the market from outside, another shopkeeper who does not wish to be named admits that a few video cassette sellers in the market had set up units in places such as Nangloi, with as many as 200 VCRs churning out pirated copies of movies. Some of these, he says, did sell adult movies mostly reproduced on cheap video cassettes. “There was a lot of money to be made in the 1980s in the video cassette business and piracy thrived in the market,” he says.
Most shops in the central hall and its mezzanine floor that once sold only video and audio cassettes are today electronics goods and garments shops. In fact, today Palika presents a curious sight—there are many shops with a front sign identifying them as electronics shops, but they are actually selling garments and shoes. So, you have a Rainbow Video selling ladies garments; Sound Trek, another electronics shop, selling garments at a fixed price of ₹250.
Most of the erstwhile owners of the electronics and video cassettes shops have been experimenting with different businesses for the past decade.
For instance, Jasbir Singh Gill, 66, who was once known in the market as cassette king, started a small snacks shop three months ago, having run a garments shop for over a decade.
Similarly, many other shops that were popular in the 1990s have changed their line of business. Clydes, which used to sell heavy rock bands cassettes and merchandise including T-Shirts, shorts and beanies. “In the 1990s, apart from tourists most of our clients were fashionable, English-speaking youngsters from Delhi, Mumbai, and northeastern states of India. Our customers had been dwindling drastically. We stared selling garments by 2005, as the number of our customers had dropped drastically,” says Sushil Deshwar, who runs the shop with his brother.
Some shopkeepers feel that the dubious reputation of Palika Bazar has adversely affected their business. Rakesh Talwar, who runs Leather Talks, a leather goods shop, says he opened the shop in the market in 1979. “We were based in Kolkata, where we produced our goods. In the first few years, we felt our decision to open our second outlet was right. But today, I feel suffocated here; it has not been easy convincing customers about the genuineness of products because of the market’s reputation for counterfeiting,” says Talwar. “This does not even remotely resemble the market I came to in 1979,” he says.
Similarly, Rajat Gupta, who runs Rajiv Book House, set up by his father in 1979, bristles at any reference to the market having been an electronics hub. “It had some of the finest bookshops, attracting book lovers from all over Delhi and outside. But yes, our business is down like never before and we are currently weighing our options,” says Gupta.
But for Ravi Thakur, Palika Bazar has turned out to be a perfect place for business. He opened his first tattoo shop here in 2013, and today runs four tattoo parlours in the market, which attract a steady stream of customers in an otherwise deserted market, where dozens of tattoo shops have come up over the few years. “Today, Palika is the biggest hub of tattoo parlours,” says Thakur, who runs Tattoo World.
But Kakkar is not amused at the market’s new reputation as a tattoo hub. “We have tolerated these tattoo shops as they have helped bring in footfalls. We are trying to figure out how the market can reinvent itself,” he says.
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