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Poor man's mall

Print edition : Aug 13, 2010 T+T-

The popular Gujri Bazaar in Ahmedabad may soon have to make way for a riverbank development project.

in Ahmedabad

IT is a scorchingly hot day in June in Ahmedabad. Unmindful of this, hundreds of traders have set up shop in a small area on the east bank of the Sabarmati river, which meanders through the city. Rain or shine, the market buzzes with activity every Sunday.

This is Ravivari or the Gujri bazaar, a unique, 596-year-old market started by Sultan Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad. For decades, the Gujri (meaning second-hand) bazaar has operated as an open market on Sundays alone (hence the name Ravivari), catering to the needs of people from nearby towns and villages as well as from the locality. It is estimated that over 3,000 people visit the market every Sunday.

There are all kinds of wares on sale working implements, furniture, household utensils, stoves, handcarts, cycle rickshaws, electronic goods, second-hand computer equipment, antique items, clothes, books, foodstuff, and so on. Essentially, the bazaar has become a workers' or a poor man's mall. Certain earthen sigdis/ choolhas and tawas (pans) are exclusive to this market.

Sadly, the bazaar could be bulldozed out of the city's face very soon. As part of the elaborate plans of the Sabarmati River Front Development Corporation (SRFDC), a wing of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), any activity that affects the overall beautification plan of the river's banks will be either done away with or located elsewhere. The riverfront development is to be completed by the end of this year. Traders of the Gujri bazaar will be given notices by August, with details of their relocation, says Ahmedabad's Deputy Municipal Commissioner and the SRFDC's Director, Capt. Dilip J. Mahajan.

Development for whom?

Estimated to cost Rs. 1151 crore, the project will stretch approximately 10 kilometres on both banks of the Sabarmati river. According to the SRFDC, there will be commercial and residential buildings, recreational spaces, 40 hectares of gardens and parks, an international convention centre and hotels along the banks. We should be able to meet the deadline in December since 85 to 90 per cent of the earth filling is over, says Mahajan.

Any obstacles in the way are done away with. The bazaar is just one of them. Recently, 7,000 houses in a shanty town on the river bank were demolished. Around 20,000 displaced people were resettled but nowhere close to the city. Activists say most of them have to make long commutes daily.

Although the project is supposed to cater to all of Ahmedabad's citizens, its plans and sketches show otherwise. If the recent rehabilitation efforts are anything to go by, it is unlikely that the project will serve the poorer sections, says Navdeep Mathur, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, who has led a study on displacements caused by the Sabarmati river development project. Clearly, this brings up the issue: whom is this development for? he says.

Mathur says: Large infrastructure projects are based on the idea of expropriating value from extremely poor people. Neither are they given adequate compensation, nor is there any proper planning regarding their rehabilitation. We need separate rehabilitation budgets that help in recovery management. Right now, rehabilitation forms a Last in Queue' residual category. Rehabilitation efforts are a failure, because neither planning nor budgetary allocations go into the effort.

Our fear is that in this notion of beautification, public areas are out of bounds for the poor, says Achyut Yagnik of the Centre of Social Knowledge and Action. Take the example of the Kankaria lake, built in the 15th century. The lake and the area around it were frequented by people belonging to all income groups. Recently the lake area was redesigned, and in the process a wall and a gate were built around it. Now they charge an entrance fee, says Yagnik. It's like charging money to see Nariman Point in Mumbai. These are public areas meant for all citizens. We fear that this is exactly what is going to happen near the Sabarmati.

A few months ago, a wall came up, drastically reducing the bazaar's six-acre (1 acre= 0.4 hectare) area . No notices were issued about the wall's construction. Traders now fear that one Sunday they will find the entire area cordoned off.

If the bazaar is disbanded or relocated, the livelihoods of hundreds of people will be under threat. Many traders, particularly women, make their wares during the course of the week and bring them to the Sunday market to sell. It is the only sale outlet for their goods. The overheads at the bazaar are minimal. These are traders who cannot afford to take a shop on rent or manage the overheads of running a business from home.

We shall completely lose our income. Our stomachs will be empty, says Abdul Wahab, a handcart maker. I make the cart in my house and use the Ravivari to sell it. On a good Sunday, we sell about four to five pieces for about Rs. 2,500 each. This gives me enough to support my family.

Wahab, who has been operating from the bazaar for 45 years, believes that the project will affect the livelihoods of thousands of people. Some even come from Maharashtra and Rajasthan to do business here.

The bazaar is something of a one-stop shop for the unorganised sector. A roadside vegetable vendor can buy a handcart, while carpenters, plumbers and electricians can find their tools here.

We have not heard from the SRFDC regarding the bazaar's fate. Whatever we know is from newspaper reports. According to them, we have been promised some alternative area near the riverfront, but we have not had any meetings on this, says Nafis Ahmed, president of the Ahmedabad Gujri Association (AGA).

We cannot go elsewhere. Thousands of people come here every Sunday to buy and sell. They won't know where to find us if we go elsewhere. The whole tradition is being ruined because of the Gujarat government's plans to beautify Ahmedabad. The project is necessary so that the wealthy can shunt the poor out of their worlds, says Ahmed. But we will fight to save our bazaar.

The AGA is no small body. A legal entity formed in 1944, the association has 1,200 permanent members, one third of whom are non-dependent women traders. Additionally, there are 1,000 non-members who pay fees for setting up stalls. The fee is a paltry Rs.6 for non-members and Rs.3 for a member per stall per Sunday. This encourages people to come and trade, says Ahmed.

After its formation, the association paid Rs. 302 a year regularly as rent for the use of the land on Sundays. But the Collector stopped taking the rent three years ago. Until then, the AGA had been paying. Unfortunately, this has put the AGA in a disadvantageous position as the city administration can say that the market is operating illegally on government land.

Ahmed says that should it come to a fight, the AGA has enough proof rent receipts to make a good defence. This isn't some illegal hawking activity that we got into after bribing the authorities. This is a proper and legitimate bazaar, he says.

The AGA has taken on the AMC before. Since 1978, there has been ongoing litigation on the ownership of the land on which the market operates. The AGA, in that year, filed a petition against the AMC when the latter reportedly tried to sell off the Ravivari premises. There are historical and also recent documents to prove that this land was given to us for trade, says Ahmed.

Paying little heed to the petition, the AMC then floated a tender to sell the land. It claimed that the market land belonged to it since it had bartered off the land to the Collector for a property in Gyaspur. The AGA filed a special civil application in 2003, and the matter has remained in court since.

The AGA's office has documents relating to the market from the early 1900s. Nafis Ahmed says that when Sultan Ahmed Shah launched the market in 1414, it was called khaas (special) bazaar. It operated on Fridays, and was therefore called Shukarvari. The market was spread from Teen Darwaza to the Bhadra Taar office in Ahmedabad.

It shifted two locations after that, but since the response from traders was poor, the bazaar eventually found, in 1954, its home on the Sabarmati river bed. It has been a successful spot for us, says Ahmed.

In the bazaar

Ravivari is located across Ellis Bridge on the Sabarmati. After the 2002 communal riots, the river has acted as some sort of a divide between communities on the west bank is the new Ahmedabad, housing the upper middle class, while on the east is the old walled city, housing the minorities and lower-income groups.

By mid-morning on a Sunday, the dusty market is a bustle of activity. Sellers and buyers bargain hard. Some furniture traders mend or assemble pieces to be sold, while potential buyers examine the wares. From the early hours of the morning, traders set up shop in their allocated 6x4 feet stalls. But few among them can afford to put up a cloth or a tarpaulin to keep the harsh sun out.

Drenched in perspiration, handcart seller Salim Gohri is sitting on a handcart with a roof. This isn't a good Sunday. Normally, we would have had at least one sale by now but today not a single customer has enquired about my carts, he says.

I have transported 15 carts in two tempo vans from Sarkej, where I live, to the market, but it does not look like I will recover my expenses this week... Of course, there are many good Sundays, and so I can keep my family well fed, he said. If they shut us down or even relocate, it will affect the whole city. Too many people are dependent on the market and the administration needs to understand that.

Gohri and Wahab say the location is key to the market's survival. There is a train terminus and a bus station within walkable distance from the market.

Laxmiben sells sigdis, wood- or coal-fired stoves. When she realises we only want to talk and not buy, she is not very pleased. As it is business is slow. If the authorities move us out of here, it will only get worse. This is the only source of income for my family.

IIM-A study

The threat to the market's existence prompted a study by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Its objective was to depict the lives of the traders and the larger problem of displacement and to highlight the rehabilitation and resettlement issues that big infrastructure projects engender. Students of its public policy programme, who conducted the study, made a film on the bazaar, titled Global Sites, Local Lives.

The study estimated that one lakh individuals depended on the market directly, including families of traders. Close to two lakh potential buyers visit the market annually. The low prices and the central location of the market was the main draw for many of them.

The study says: Of the traders who were interviewed, more than 50 per cent were primary earners for their families .

Moreover, 23 per cent of the respondents were second- or third-generation market traders. The majority of the traders said that they led a hand-to-mouth existence and any loss of customer base would wipe them out.

Professor Mathur says the State government should realise how important the market is for the informal sector. Although the SRFDC says in its report that a space for informal markets will be created, it has not specified whether it will be for Ravivari or for any other kind of flea market, he notes.

Government stand

Dilip Mahajan, SRFDC Director, told Frontline that the market featured in the overall SRFDC project. We have allocated some land for the traders and they will be told very soon. He pointed out that the land by the river bank belonged to the government and impediments to the river project had to be removed.

Mahajan said the Sabarmati, a primarily rain-fed river, looked like a sewer after shanties encroached upon its banks. He said the government's stand was that the Sabarmati had to be saved if Ahmedabad was to be a world-class city.

Ahmedabad is gearing for its 600th year celebrations. Mahajan said Rs. 5,000 crore had been pumped into infrastructure projects last year. Completing the river project was crucial to the overall plan. For the SRFDC-displaced, the government is planning to provide housing on vacant mill lands in the city, he said.

The French architect Bernard Kohn first conceived the idea of the Sabarmati river project. However, his vision was to turn it into an eco-sensitive zone. It involved planting tree clusters and farming, and involving the local people in it. He did not believe that an ecological zone had to be necessarily green and pretty.