Sadar Bazar ponders its place in Covid-19 era
Sadar Bazar, India’s largest-- and perhaps most congested-- wholesale market of household goods with over 40,000 shops , struggles to figure out how to conduct business in the post–Covid worldUpdated: May 22, 2020 12:57 IST
These days Rakesh Yadav, a trader in Sadar Bazar, spends a significant time every day discussing with his fellow businessmen how to reopen the market and conduct business in the post–Covid world. He says in Sadar Bazar, a warren of narrow streets, always jam-packed in normal times , social distancing is an impossible proposition—and so is the odd-even formula the government has proffered.
He explains why: Sadar Bazar, India’s largest wholesale market of household goods, has about 40,000 shops; each one has about 3-4 workers/salesmen. Then there are thousands of thelawalas, daily wage labourers, loaders, luggage careers, rickshaw drivers, jostling for space in its lanes. On an average, Yadav says, there are 2. 5 lakh people in the market on any given day.
“The traders feel opening the market is a monumental risk , and they are reluctant to take it,” says Yadav, who is also president, Sadar Bazar Trades Association. Among the proposals, he points out, the traders have floated during endless rounds of tele- and video conferencing in the past few days, include opening the shops trade-wise, reducing the timing of business hours, keeping hand sanitiser machines at all shops, creating a boundary with a rope to separate shoppers from shopkeepers, encouraging customers to pre-order goods on WhatsApp, and minimise cash transactions.
“While all these measures look good on paper, it is next to impossible to implement them in a market like Sadar Bazar. The traders are fearful of Covid-19 because a majority of them are in their late 50s and 60s, running the business with the help of their employees, their children having refused to join, what with the poor working conditions in the market,” says Yadav.
Making a choice is tough, says Rajender Sharma, a soft-toy trader in the market. “We are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The market is usually so crowded it is impossible for people to walk without literally falling over each other. You cannot maintain social distancing in the market where many streets are barely 3-ft wide,” says Sharma.
Pawan Kumar, national organising general secretary, Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal, says that the odd-even formula proposed by the Delhi government would not work in Sadar Bazar.
“There are hundreds of buildings here with one number, but as many as 20 shops, a result of the fact the property has over the years been divided among family members,” says Kumar who has his shop near Bara Tooti Chowk, in Sadar Bazar, one of the city’s oldest labour chowks, where manual labourers, masons, porters and house painters used to gather every morning looking for work. These days it wears a deserted look. “We kept meeting authorities over the past two decades to decongest the market, improve the infrastructure and working conditions, but no one cared. Now we are faced with an existential crisis,” adds Kumar.
Pawan Khandelwal, a jeweller in Sadar Bazar says the market is the lifeline for lakhs of traders across north India. “Every house in Delhi would have something that came from this market. Here one can buy anything from cosmetics to toys, steel utensils, stationery, gas ovens, jewellery. You name it and we sell it, ” says Khandelwal.
He is not exaggerating.
Sadar Bazar, which is presently a containment zone, has dozens of submarkets such as Pratap Market, Swadeshi Market, Toys Market, Bartan Market, each dealing in a particular product. In all, there are about 83 traders associations in the market, more than in any other market in the city.
Until the late 1980s, most traders lived in Sadar Bazar, with their shops on the ground floor and residence upstairs in localities such as Deputy Gunj, Prakash Gali, Matawali Gali, but as congestion increased over the years, most shifted out, converting their houses into warehouses and shops. They allowed, rather encouraged, the labourers to sleep in the house-turned-godowns, ensuring that they did not have to worry about lack of labour or break-ins, while workers and labourers got a place to live. Thousands of workers and labourers, who are mostly into loading , unloading and transporting goods on hand-pulled carts, who could not find a space simply slept outside shops and godowns, cooking, bathing sleeping in the narrow streets.
For them, Sadar Bazar has been a home and a workplace for decades. For instance, Rajendra Prasad, 62. He was 20 when he arrived in Delhi 40 years ago on a pleasant March morning. From the railway station, he headed straight to Sadar Bazar, where he found work within a couple of hours. He earned ₹10 on day one and slept on a footpath in the night . “I remember a shopkeeper had asked me to load sacks of wool in a truck. I never went out of work in the market until this March, when it closed,” says Prasad. “I have been desperately waiting for the market to reopen for two months now; I think it is time to head to my village,” adds Prasad, who hails from Basti district in Uttar Pradesh.
While thousands of labourers like Prasad left for their homes over the past two months, having failed to earn, there are others who have stayed put
Mallu Singh 40, who has so far resisted the temptation to leave, says: “ I was never short of work since I came to Sadar Bazar 22 years ago. Starting at 10 am, I would work late into the night , earning anything between ₹400 to ₹800 a day. “ I have waited for 2 months and I think I should wait for some more time before I leave,” says Singh , who hails from Gonda district in UP.