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Kolkata becomes first Indian metro to settle displaced hawkers on boats, visitors pour in

From fish and chicken to blankets and barber shop, the 114 boats on an artificial lake at Patuli offer it all while Google offers Kolkata first in search for ‘floating market’.

kolkata Updated: Feb 05, 2018 16:22 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee
Tanmay Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Kolkata Floating Market,Kolkata,Mamata Banerjee
The floating market at Patuli is drawing people from all over Kolkata, especially during weekends. (Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo)

For years, 36-year-old Subhendu Pramaik, a barber, had been attending to his customers - comprising mostly poor people - on a pavement along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypss that connects Kolkata to its fast-developing southern outskirts. Few ever bothered to notice him.

During the long weekend that started with Republic Day, the humble barber was photographed and caught on video by thousands who drove down from all over Kolkata. Many even clicked selfies with him. Reason: Pramanik now has his shop in a boat that floats on a 8000 square metre artificial lake at Patuli, a small township set up by the erstwhile Left regime.

The vegetable sellers are making brisk business because for buyers, the experience is unique. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

After failing to procure land for a market for shopkeepers and hawkers displaced by development projects six years ago, the Trinamool government has rehabilitated 128 of these people on 114 boats. The beneficiaries were selected through lottery.

Not all are lucky enough to have an entire boat and Pramanik figures among those who have been asked to share space. Wooden gangways have been set up on raised platforms that crisscross the water so that customers can walk around. The boats are tied to these platforms to prevent rolling. The shopkeepers, many among whom are women, have been given life jackets for their safety.

Built on a budget of Rs 10 crore and inaugurated on January 24, the project has not only made Kolkata the first Indian metro to have a floating market but has also altered lives and perceptions.

Samar Biswas (47) is one of the four shopkeepers who sell chicken. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

Public reaction to this experiment has caught even the administration by surprise. Since January 26, Google is offering ‘Kolkata’ as its first response to the search words ‘floating market.’ Parking space in the neighbourhood is getting scarce and traffic managers are having a tough time.

“All my life I sold fish on the streets out there and I knew most of my customers by face. Now, I am meeting complete strangers. Not all people come to buy but out of every 100, at least 90 click selfies with my boat and the fishes,” quipped Sukdeb Haldar, 40, pointing at his stock of Rohu and prawns.

“We open shop at 5.30 am and leave around 11 at night. These boats have special compartments inside the hull. We keep perishable items in iceboxes,” said Haripada Chowkidar, the only fishmonger who accepts e-wallet payments. “Prices here are the same as in other markets,” he pointed out.

Sale has been brisk for some this weekend. “I was a little apprehensive and brought only 20 live chickens and some eggs on Friday. Everything was sold,” said Samar Biswas, 47.

A flower shop at the floating market. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

“I have heard that people sell many things on boats at Dal Lake in Kashmir and there are floating markets in Bangkok. We, too, have joined them,” said Babu Gazi, 46, a butcher who sells mutton. What Gazi possibly didn’t know is that the five floating markets in Bangkok draw mostly foreign tourists.

A couple capturing the moment on Republic Day. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

Interestingly, the man who fought for the rehabilitation of these people visited Thailand several times to talk to shopkeepers and civic officials. “I studied the floating markets in Bangkok and realised that we need to improvise. The design of our boats was approved by experts from Jadavpur University. Urban development minister Firhad Hakim launched the project and allotted funds,” said Shaktiman Ghosh, president of the National Hawker Federation.

Loaded with pillows and blankets, this boat stands out at the floating market. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

Ghosh has fought for rehabilitation of urban hawkers since the ‘80s and partnered with union leaders in foreign shores to create the International Federation of Hawker and Urban Poor in Japan, Laos, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil. “Cities will grow because development can’t be stopped. But rehabilitation must be ensured,” said Ghosh.

He held the first review meeting with shopkeepers and engineers on the banks of the lake on Republic Day. “We have to show those swanky shopping malls that we are not inferior in any way,” he told the hawkers. The crowd cheered.

At the floating market, at least ten boats cater to the fish - loving Bengali. Women run four of these shops. ( Tanmay Chatterjee / HT Photo )

Talking of odds, the shopkeepers do face a few.

“We have been told not to light fire on the boats. I sell tea and omelette. How can I manage without fire?” a woman asked Ghosh. “Rules are rules. Start a different business if you have to,” he replied firmly.

Local residents who used to go for walks on the banks of the lake have now started carrying shopping bags. “The face of our neighbourhood has suddently changed. We must preserve it,” said Amal Dutta, a retired engineer and resident of Patuli.

First Published: Feb 05, 2018 16:22 IST