What are the memories that stay with you when you first visit a city? Sure, the restaurants, nightclubs, clean and pristine public spaces, malls, the highways, the celebrity sightings etc. are fantastic and they enhance a tourist's experience of a culture in innumerable and valuable ways.
But often the memories that we really cherish and share with our kin or on Facebook are much less glamourous but priceless nevertheless. An exquisitely flavoured kaati roll which cost less than a dollar, a runaway-price Fendi knock-off bought on the street, the colours of a bustling local farmer's market, the sights and smells of city trade on the eve of a festival.
These are moments which allow us to experience a city's quintessential indigenous character in a way that a mall, a club or a highway never could. For me, a city's historical local shopping markets are one such asset which creates an ecosystem of entertainment, commerce and convenience which not only serves residents well, but over time builds collective memory and local character.
But in a city where the old is constantly making way for the new, how do we ensure that our institutions first of all acknowledge these assets and then protect them?
But in a city where the old is constantly making way for the new, how do we ensure that our institutions first of all acknowledge these assets and then protect them? And how do we do so without endangering necessary change?
At midnight on the 24th of January, the Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, or BBMP) erased one such popular landmark in Bangalore: the Gandhi Bazaar. The bazaar is over a hundred years old, home to fresh fruits, flowers and vegetable vendors and some of the most delicious local fast food joints.
In less than an hour, in the dead of the night, the corporation carried out an anti-encroachment drive and evicted all vendors and street hawkers who plied their trade on both sides of the main road. The reasons given were that most of the encroachments were illegal and getting in the way of pedestrians and traffic. The cleared footpaths and adjoining roadway will now make room for easy movement of traffic and more parking slots. The municipal corporation has also promised to provide 'alternative' commercial space for the vendors as close as possible to the market.
A hundred years of history gone for good?
Two days after the eviction, I visited the area to pay my respects to the bazaar and get some answers. I expected to see the vendors back in action after having paid off the municipal authorities their standard quota of bribes. But not this time. I could sense some permanency in this particular eviction.
A dharna (protest) was being staged by the vendors, supported by a politician from an opposition party. A few BBMP officials hung around the area trying not to be spotted by the media. The press was milling about photographing the trashed stalls and the debris. The formal licensed brick-and-mortar shop keepers as well as residents were indifferent to this entire process, going about their daily business as usual.
In my conversation with a BBMP official stationed in the area, I learned that only 100 licenses have been given out to hawkers in the area, and that there are now over 300 vendors stationed on the footpaths. Even the ones with a license have been given a six-by-four-foot area, which they have expanded overtime illegally causing footpaths and the roads to be choked.
'They had it coming', he said, 'they had received several warnings but they never obeyed.' The protesters responded unequivocally, 'we had absolutely no warning, they have robbed us of everything in one night.' A shopkeeper commented, 'we feel really sorry for them, they have suffered millions of rupees in losses, some of them have been doing business here over three generations covering a hundred years.'
One resident lamented, 'we feel bad too, we get the best prices for fruits and vegetables here.' Another resident was happy, 'now there's room for us to walk and park our cars, parking was always such a problem here.' I was a little taken aback that neither local residents nor surrounding shopkeepers were interested in participating in the dharna even those that expressed genuine concern.
Those who have broken the law must be punished, because otherwise the ones who do not have no incentive to remain honest. On the other hand, clearing public markets to make way for more parking spaces which are the bane of an already car-dependent city is absolutely atrocious.
All this for more car parking?
While a lot of people are busy taking sides, I personally believe that there is absolutely no answer out there that will please all stakeholders equally. I firmly believe that there can and should be no remorse for people who break the law; after all footpaths and roads are also public spaces that belong to the entire city and no-one has the right to encroach on them whether rich or poor.
Those who have broken the law must be punished, because otherwise the ones who do not have no incentive to remain honest. On the other hand, clearing public markets to make way for more parking spaces which are the bane of an already car-dependent city is absolutely atrocious. Whatever the arguments are, three issues come to mind which I believe merit further enquiry.
First of all, why now and why like this? Why were encroachments being tolerated (and often encouraged by political forces) all these years by civic officials? If not for the traffic jams these vendors caused, would the encroachments have continued to be tolerated for another 100 years?
Secondly, change is certainly inevitable, and I don't think we can afford to deny that. But if change is going to mean forcefully and not naturally losing collective socio-cultural memory, is that change worth it? Can we really trade a slice of local history for more parking? What are the ways and means by which we can preserve this history, albeit in an evolved form?
And lastly, do our civic authorities have a long-term view of these issues which address the root of the problem or are we getting by with knee-jerk reactions? Informal markets are created just as informal housing settlements are created: lack of affordable commercial spaces and affordable formal credit force people into informal situations to make their living. Similarly, the failure of our legal system to enforce the rules has allowed this informality to flourish, as have political actors who continue to use this to their advantage. Is the National Policy for Urban Street Vendors missing this point entirely?