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By the way: Heart of Chandigarh needs a big heart

Shopkeepers here are losing sleep and raising slogans over the presence of street vendors now, blaming them for the market’s decline.

columns Updated: Nov 19, 2017 12:00 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Chandigarh,sector 17 plaza,Chandigarh news
Street vendors at the plaza in Sector 17, Chandigarh, who are now being blamed for all that’s wrong here.(Karun Sharma/HT)

The heart works in mysterious ways. Replace the word mysterious with stupid, and you’ll get closer to reality. Walk into Sector 17, the heart of Chandigarh, and you’ll watch it in action.

Shopkeepers here are losing sleep and raising slogans over the presence of street vendors now, blaming them for the market’s decline. The UT administration has fashionably declared the vendors illegal, making it clear that Sector 17 is in fact a no-vending zone under a new law. Such is the appeal of this savarna decision that it may even be extended to Sectors 19 and 22, the other two markets that compete for the title of the ‘heart of City Beautiful’ but lose out due to presence of middle-class-friendly shops.

Thank God, thanks to this protest and the decision, there’s some clarity finally on why Sector 17 is no longer the hub of everything that happens

in the tricity. The decline is visible particularly on weekends, when the city’s marquee mall is filled with noise and body odour — the two signs of a marketplace’s popularity — while Sector 17 remains depressingly devoid of footfall.

I am sure that the shopkeeper — owner of a prime supermarket — who once told me, “Sector 17 is not a mall. It’s a bazaar,” was utterly wrong. At the time, two years ago — when the decline had only led to some reflection rather than misdirected protests — he told me that malls are air-conditioned and house everything under one roof in a controlled environment, while bazaars have only their “liveliness”. That liveliness, he had said, was missing in the “regimented, bylaw-bound” environment of Sector 17. Sorry, sir, please devour back those words too as you open your mouth wide to raise slogans against that liveliness now.

Those protesting now are no different from those who once filed a case against the weekly plaza performance stopped on account of the noise it made. Ten years ago, officials from the municipal corporation and the police came and stopped that weekly fete. The MC later sought to make use of the space by renting it out for promotional shows. That did not work. Two years ago, another shopkeeper had told me that the Saturday carnival used to bring footfall, and something like that was required to “liven up” the market.

Yet, no one is protesting why the administration’s repeated promises of restarting some of those activities have not yet materialised. In the name of entertainment now, all we have are some tacky 1990s songs being played to a juvenile laser show at the fountain.

The charm is long gone. And the vendors are not to blame. They are only filling a vacuum and are, in fact, essential to keep people coming at all.

Let’s talk about the real reason.

Over the past decade, the main bus stand has shifted from Sector 17 to Sector 43, and so have the district courts. Worse, the realty bubble has burst. If you want to look for a turning point, go back seven years, when a showroom of 2,000 sq ft was rented out for ₹22 lakh a month. That is five times of what a similar space costs in a prime mall today, and more than 10 times of what it costs in other markets of the city. No wonder that some shopkeepers had even shifted their own businesses to the upper floors and rented out the ground floors at astronomical rentals. The tiny malls that the city had seven years ago were no match to it.

Cut to now. Those ground floors are either vacant, or on the rental market every six months. Gone are the days when you had to be in Sector 17 if you wanted to show that you are a big brand! There has been some correction, but the inflated egos mean no one is ready to see reality. Even the jolts of demonetisation and the GST implementation have failed to ignite common sense.

And Sector 17 still takes itself too seriously.

(The author can be contacted at aarish.chhabra@hindustantimes.com)

First Published: Nov 19, 2017 08:40 IST