So where have all the hawkers gone?

Published: October 12, 2010 - 15:34 Updated: October 12, 2010 - 15:37

The beautification drive for the Commonwealth Games has led to the ruthless elimination of hawkers from public spaces. If this is not ethnic cleansing of our streets, what is it?
Ratna Raman Delhi

I don't really like the word hawker. Although it does mean 'aggressive seller of wares', the noun recalls for me the reference to the falconer who trained wild birds of prey, not the diminutive men and (occasionally) women who sell fruits, vegetables and other odds and ends, providing yeoman service to privileged buyers for whom the things they require in their daily life are always within easy access, both monetarily and in terms of location. The hawker's potential for any form of aggression or resistance is confined to the increasing decibels at which he exuberantly pitches the produce he is selling. This is a narrative about two markets: one selling more fruit and the other levelling the scales with its abundance of vegetables.

The housewife stepping out from her government quarters in RK Puram in south Delhi just needed to go across the road behind Hyatt Regency that intersects with Africa Avenue at one end and Vivekananda Marg at the other. More or less the same distance was traversed by the home-returning babu after stepping out of office at the end of a day's work, to pick up fresh vegetables for the evening's and the next morning's meal. In a small space wedged between the West Block offices and the odd shops in RK Puram sector one, just across the road from the vegetable market, there was a truly wondrous fruit market. Both sides of a rectangular plot of land were lined end to end with makeshift shelters of gunny sacks and plastic sheets that were propped up on bamboo poles. 

There was such an abundance of fruit, and at prices that were so reasonable, that the verb bargaining ceased to function both as part of the buyer's lexicon and activity. More importantly, there were  phalwallahs and phalwallis (male and female fruitsellers), so en route to anywhere, one could make a quick halt and buy enough fruit and vegetables for the next two or three days, and go home, feeling  content while balancing bags strung on all fingers of both hands. 

Other than the prices, another amazing thing about this market was the excellent quality of the fruits. If one visited in the early afternoon, there would be a line of babus waiting at their favourite fruitseller, who doubled as chatwallah, and cut up an assortment of fruits for them to savour post-lunch with a dash of masala and lemon, garnished with a toothpick.  This little community, possibly around 20 families, represented a sea change from the Mother Dairy vegetable kiosks, where, unless you were privileged enough to shop at the North Avenue or Hauz Khas outlets, what passed off for vegetables and fruits were mingy specimens that had been put through the roller, made to suffer, and looked wrung, shrivelled up or dissipated most of the time. Such conclusions could be deduced if and when the outlet remained open. Sometimes, the kiosks could remain shut for hours leaving you to marvel at the parallels between State-run kiosks and State-controlled affairs. 

Nevertheless, the pride felt by one set of buyers is always offset by everybody else's envy. The buri nazar (evil eye) was cast upon this little market. Someone in an air-conditioned government office decided that it was time to turn the screw. Quickly, the vegetable shacks were dismantled (it takes little effort to dislocate makeshift spaces as the MCD will inform you. Concrete encroachments inside posh colonies make for a more difficult task, involving money and clout) and the sellers were evicted from their customary space. 

The planning that goes into this is swift and ruthless. This is perhaps why very few of us know the names of the men and women who sell us our daily fruits and vegetables. The process of erasing familiar faces from memory and shutting our minds to the horror of their displacement is thereby achieved in a remarkably short time-span. 

The arm of the State cordoned off the lane and sealed access to it with the help of a metal gate and grill, thereby preventing it from ever being claimed as a market. The hapless fruitsellers shifted to the other side of the road and set up stalls, trying to restore routine in their disturbed lives. Some took shelter inside the RK Puram sector one main market, others began plying fruit on handcarts. The small community had been effectively uprooted, and it slowly withered and shrivelled up.  

Meanwhile, the vegetable market continued to provide a supply of fresh vegetables. It was offset by a fruit juice stall, that also specialised in vegetable juices and mango shakes, and two stalls selling fruits, after which followed a long line of stalls selling vegetables interspersed with a couple of meat outlets that catered to the requirements of residential colonies within a two-kilometre radius. However, theirs too was a short-lived respite. 

In the wake of the Commonwealth Games, the entire machinery of the State swung into action. When Sheila Dikshit says "clearances had to be done", she is not referring merely to the signing of papers that authorise work. She perhaps implies large-scale human clearance. 

One fine morning, the vegetable market stretching over half a kilometre in length ceased to exist. You may well ask: Why? The roads of New Delhi needed to boast of fine pavements. That could only be achieved by sanitising the pavements and by getting rid of the people who played such a vital role in the everyday lives of the more fortunate. 

Today, if you were to turn in from the Outer Ring Road, and drive past the spot, all you will see is a raised pavement with coloured concrete tiles and a few wilting oleander shrubs, planted in the honour of the Commonwealth Games. This was the workplace of teeming families, whose kids sat at the stalls, sometimes after a day's schooling, and sold produce to everyone who milled by in search of fresh greens and seasonal vegetables.

Games, I would agree, are by themselves remarkable. As someone put it so ably in the language of our former administrators: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."  To achieve gender neutrality we must hasten to add that this holds true for Jill as well.  
Of course, we must balance our work with play, but exactly what kind of work are we talking about and whose play is the point of reference here? Work and the accompanying leisure allotted for play as we understand it does not form part of the lives of the poor: the service providers and the sellers of fruits and vegetables, who live in the shadows of our city. In any case, all of them only occupy the twilight zones of our memory and their lives do not exist in our imagination, so where is the question of worrying about their accessibility to play or work?

This is the great game that we play with them, because our common wealth, the streets and sidewalks of this humongous city can only belong to the State or to the mighty, who effortlessly incorporate service lanes and make them their own, stalk sidewalks and enclose pavements, park their cars on the pavements, double park, and wherever possible, park vehicles in the middle of the road.  

The "clearance" in Safdarjang Enclave has been achieved over two phases. First, the immovable eyesores, the MCD dustbins, were removed. Next, the moveable eyesores  such as  the corner tea stall, cobbler's den, quilt maker's shack, flower seller's bucket circle (poor men who toiled to make our lives richer, warmer and more durable) were got rid of. So what if they happen to be human too?  
And truly, how pleasant the tiled pavement looks, free of slush, debris, mess, quilt fluff, cobbler, fruit, vegetable leavings! We no longer have to stop for wretched commuters and pedestrians who invariably and annoyingly slowed down traffic with their daily purchases. Now multicoloured metallic menaces whiz by on the road, and how they gleam and shine at the extended possibilities of unauthorised parking. 

At first I felt a strong sense of outrage. For this 12-day circus, involving international players and a miniscule elite that has the privilege of playing any game it desires, we had smoked out our service providers and denied them their daily bread. The disruption of their livelihood has a domino effect upon hundreds of ordinary households that were sustained by their services. How did we allow this? Then, slowly reason prevailed as I discovered the method to this madness.  

This is the way we do it in New Delhi. This is how we have always done it. In the 1970s, in and around the Western Extension Area (as Karol Bagh and Patel Nagar were then addressed) there were vendors and service providers who were the backbone of the middle-class communities that resided there. One fine day, as part of a beautification drive, vegetable markets, unauthorised squatters and makeshift habitations were cleared, everyone was rounded up and packed off to Khichripur in east Delhi. This was a name that evoked dread because all the people relocated at Khichripur found it well nigh impossible to commute to their place of work because of the long distance and the prohibitive daily cost of public transport. As no TA or DA is ever built into the earnings of the unorganised sector, this dislocated group of people, whose names no one really knew, was replaced with another motley group whose names no one would again take the trouble to remember.

Such practice continues systematically in various parts of the city, as we make it habitable for one set of people and contrive to keep others out. So, herein lies the secret of the successful Centre. Unlike the misdirected Shiv Sena which chooses to unleash its venom on non-Marathi service providers, we proceed with malice towards one and all.  Our show is on a larger scale. We get rid of just about everyone quietly and effectively. Nobody can accuse us of singling out any community, at least in this matter.

Apparently, we are not without role models in realpolitik. The Romans are on record as being the first to set such a process in motion. In order to showcase the power and might of the ruler, events for viewing by privileged Romans were periodically organised. In Ancient Rome, the strong and the mighty displayed their prowess in special arenas, tested their mettle against equals, equestrians and wild animals, and demonstrated their demigod-like skills. This was a display put on by the ablest for the entertainment of the elite. 

The 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi operates more or less on the same principle. Only the arenas are now gigantic sports fields. We have little record of all those displaced by the recurring Roman extravaganzas as the powerless seldom generate any official interest. I wonder if things are so very different today. We have got rid of every one superfluous to the game, months in advance. It is doubtful that they have been relocated in any manner that has contributed to their lives. The chosen mode of entertainment for the Romans was referred to as the Spectacle. We, the watching, cheering spectators of 2010, call our form of entertainment, Sport.

The beautification drive for the Commonwealth Games has led to the ruthless elimination of hawkers from public spaces. If this is not ethnic cleansing of our streets, what is it?
Ratna Raman Delhi

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