Covid curbs kill charm of Delhi’s iconic Daryaganj book bazar
Every Sunday, a section of the footpath outside Mahila Haat on Asaf Ali Road becomes busier than usual as booksellers from different parts of Delhi-NCR start trickling in around afternoon. Cycle rickshaws, tempos, scooters, and hand-driven carts stacked with books of all shades line the road, and restless vendors stand on the footpath as they wait for the clock to strike 4pm.
As the heat gets unbearable, some occupy the footpaths, others use stacks of books as makeshift stools, while the rest lay down the books alongside a railing bordering the Mahila Haat complex with the hope that passersby might take note and buy a book or two.
Santosh Gupta, a book vendor, whose books were stacked against the railing, talks about the futility of the entire process. “The gates of Mahila Haat will not open before 4pm. Until then, we are compelled to wait and watch. Some people unpack the books and spread them out in the hope that a passerby might buy some books from the lot. Around 4pm, we bundle the books again as the gates open and then unpack them inside the complex. Around 7pm, we start packing again before the closure at 8pm,” said Gupta, who was sweating profusely.
Since malls and markets reopened in June, the timings for the popular book bazar have been reduced with the Haat opening at its usual time at 4pm but closing at 8pm instead of 10pm. As a result, Gupta and his contemporaries get only a handful of hours for business. The duration includes the time that goes into setting up the bazar and later packing it up.
The Daryaganj Sunday Book Bazar functioned from the pavements for decades after the court ordered its removal from the road in 2019 due to traffic congestion. The Mahila Haat, from where it runs now, is located opposite the Delite Cinema, interestingly the same place where it used to start earlier. The bazar was known for priceless editions sold at throwaway prices and titles as varied as school textbooks to poetry, space and engineering.
The bazar was reopened in June as curbs on markets and malls — put in place after a lockdown was imposed in the Capital from April 19 — were lifted. Unlike other markets, however, the book bazar is allowed to open only between 4pm and 8pm, as per oral orders of the North Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Vendors have asked authorities to extend their timings, arguing that the ongoing four-hour limit has made it difficult for them to even recover costs.
Qamar Sayeed, president of Daryganj Sunday Book Bazar Patri Welfare Association, said MCD officials have given them oral instructions outlining the timings of the market. He said the vendors were helpless since MCD officials did not open the gates before the stipulated timing.
“They never show us a written order and simply say that the Delhi government and DMs/SDMs have issued guidelines that say that the bazar can operate only between 4pm and 8pm. The orders might be oral, but we are compelled to comply since the complex is under the MCD’s control and they don’t unlock the gates before 4pm,” said Sayeed.
Besides the unreasonable timings, there are other challenges at the current location. “Now, we are confined by walls. There are all kinds of challenges now. From harsh weather to police lathi charging us, we bear it all,” he said.
The association has written to multiple stakeholders; including chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, the district magistrate and sub-divisional magistrates of the district, and the police and MCD, asking for an extension of their business hours, but to no avail.
“Before the second lockdown was imposed in April, we were allowed to sell our books from 4pm to 10pm. Now, we have to close by 8pm. These timings are not enough to run our business. It takes us an hour to set up the market once the gates open at 4pm. This leaves us with only three hours. After 7pm, we need to start wrapping up. How are we supposed to earn a living in an hour or two? We are not even able to cover the transportation cost and other charges,” said Sayeed, as he stood on the footpath outside Mahila Haat on Sunday, waiting for the gates to open.
He added that the timings were not feasible for vendors, who travel from different parts of Delhi and its neighbouring cities, or students, who are an important target audience.
“There is only one such market for book lovers. People travel from far-off places but don’t get enough time to purchase books of their choice. Parents also don’t allow children to travel freely in the evening. We want the government to allow us to operate from the morning as we did in our earlier location or at least allow us to work from 12 noon till 5pm,” said Sayeed.
District magistrate of central Delhi Akriti Sagar said market timings were regulated as per the DDMA order. She added that since the market was shifted to Mahila Haat, the MCD was looking into the matter.
Commissioner of North Delhi Municipal Corporation Sanjay Goel said the civic body will take action as per the DDMA orders and examine the timings of the market.
On Sunday, first-time visitors to the market and others, who were not aware of the timings, waited outside till 3:30-4 pm for the market to open. Regular visitors to the book bazar also said that extended timings will be better. Vivek Kumar, a Class 12 student of a government school, said the old timings were better. “Here, time for buying books is limited. Earlier, we would get enough time for browsing through books, at the old location. Today, I saw many people return because they didn’t want to wait till 4pm,” said Kumar, who was at the market to purchase textbooks. “Books are cheaper here. Every year, I try and get my course books from this market,” he said.
Pooja Kumar, a DU graduate and a first-time visitor, said she heard about the market from her friends. Pooja, who was not familiar with the timings, however, left before vendors could set up the market. “A friend of mine once got four to five books at throwaway prices. Since I had some free time, I decided to visit the market. However, only a few vendors are selling right now. I had no idea that the market is only operating for a few hours,” said Pooja.