A man kneels in front of his books. In front of signs in English and Hindi that refer to his terms for pricing and selling.
A street vendor unloads books from a rickshaw at the Daryaganj Sunday book market in New Delhi on February 17, 2019. The 50-year old book market was shut down in July sparking continued protests from the book sellers and patrons. Laurene Becquart/AFP/Getty Images

The modernizing government in Delhi is taking aim at the city’s characteristic street culture, including the book market that has charmed passersby for decades.

From the Temple Street night market in Hong Kong to the Southbank Centre weekend market in London, temporary open-air markets give cities across the world their unique cultural identity. These makeshift markets provide spontaneity and vibrancy to public spaces: Bangkok would not be the same without the Chatuchak market just as Mumbai would be incomplete without its Colaba market. Many of these markets only appear weekly or for a few hours daily, enabling vendors to afford the rents on a time-sharing basis.

Indian cities have long been made up of such flexible, multi-functional and informally organized spaces. The architecture of these temporal spaces spans time and their urban fabric is not an outcome of city planning, but a gradual and organic process of design by the people themselves. These hafta, or weekly markets, form an integral part of the Indian urban experience, selling everything from shoes to furniture at affordable rates. The Daryaganj Sunday book market in Delhi is one of the most well known and loved of such markets where you can spend hours immersed in books by authors from Rowling to Rushdie, Tolkien to Twain, all stacked up on the pavements of Old Delhi on Asaf Ali and Netaji Subhash Roads.

But for two months now, city municipal authorities have prevented the book sellers from setting up, and the vendors have been protesting ever since. On September 15, they were joined by a number of citizens of Delhi who gathered with them in support, stating their love of the market and the city’s cultural heritage.

“I have grown up on these books,” said Damini Rathi, an architect and one of the regulars at the market. “I still remember when my father brought home a box of Archie comics for the first time from the market when I was a kid.” The Sunday flea market in Old Delhi has been selling secondhand books for more than 50 years. Popular with the regulars, students and tourists alike, it has formed a quintessential part of living in Delhi, until now.

Booksellers in Delhi, India, protest the relocation of their 50-year old market. September 15, 2019. (Swati Janu)

The market was removed by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation over “traffic concerns” based on a High Court order dated July 3, 2019. However, “the order only mentions one part of the market as a non-vending zone, that is Netaji Subhash Road which also had several other temporary markets along it,“ said Ankit Jha, a social worker at the NGO YUVA, who has been campaigning for the rights of street vendors.

The municipality interpreted the court order as a mandate to remove the entire market. This has not just affected the 276 book sellers, but the entire city.

Shiv Viswanathan, a well-known Indian academic, calls the eviction a “demolition of memories” by the civic authorities and court, and an “encroachment on life and livelihoods.” Ankit points out that the eviction of the market also violates the Street Vendors’ Act of 2014 and the recently formulated 2019 Street Vendors’ Scheme. “As per the scheme, the eviction of vendors without first conducting a survey to map them is a violation of the basic idea behind the Act which has been named Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Vending for a reason,” Ankit said.

Every Sunday since July 28, the book sellers have tried to put up their stalls, only to have their books confiscated. Sumit Verma, a book seller at the market whose father also sold books there told me, “we are not even given a memo of confiscated goods which is mandatory by law.”

Recently, the municipality offered the vendors an alternate location, Mahila Haat, a dedicated and elevated open-air plaza close to the market which was initially meant for women artisans to showcase and sell their crafts but has been lying unused for years. While several book sellers have agreed to set up their shops there after two months of lost income, most book sellers are against the relocation. “No consensus was taken in allocating the Mahila Haat to us. We are a heritage market only if we stay where we have been setting up our market for decades as a mixed-use public space,” Sumit said, referring to the clause under the Street Vendors’ Act which declares “natural markets” older than 50 years as heritage markets that cannot be relocated.

Other vendors echo similar fears that, once they’re relocated, it will be easier to remove them from the new location. Many find the daily rent of 170 Rupees (a little over $2 in a country where the daily per capita income is about $5) that will be charged at the new location steep. “It’s also a matter of identity,” Sumit argues. “We are Daryaganj Sunday Book Bazaar because we’ve always been here, every Sunday. Daryaganj is now synonymous with Sunday book market.”

At the protest, book vendors and supporters formed a human chain to protect their books from confiscation by the municipality. At other times they displayed and passed around flyers providing information on their rights and laws meant for protection of vendors. But the police managed to break up the demonstration by detaining a few of the book sellers for trying to set up their shops. Intimidated, other sellers and supporters drifted away.

The situation has also spawned a Twitter battle of words: The Commissioner of North Delhi Municipal Corporation, Varsha Joshi tweeted in support of the decision to relocate the book seller, writing, “how come ‘activists’ have such immense problems with an upgraded, higher quality, safer, legally binding, arrangement for vendors and shoppers? The activists prefer clogged traffic and danger to life and limb for vendors and buyers?”

Concerned citizens have been tweeting back in response. “Vending on streets adds character and life to pedestrian experience of the city … as a woman I feel safer on busier streets. As a micro practice, they can save more with low infrastructure costs,” wrote Chitra Chandrashekhar, a visual storyteller who helped design the information flyers for the book sellers. The commissioner has since made her twitter account private.

In many ways, this exchange brings to light the schism between the idea of redevelopment that the civic authorities seem to have and the concerns of the citizens. Pedestrianization in the city is being translated to the removal of street vendors instead of cars. If they are not along the pavements and streets, the vendors lose out on the footfall of their incidental customers.

Kanupriya Dhingra, a researcher at the University of London who has been studying the book market, points out that the relocation is about a larger cultural shift: “The aesthetics of walking on the streets of Daryaganj shall remain absent from the closed, controlled space of Mahila Haat.”

Sohail Hashmi, a well known historian who gathered in support of the book sellers said: “Why can’t the whole stretch be made car-free instead of vendor-free?” An expert on the history of the city, he has written on the history of the weekly markets. He explained his belief that because of the markets rural legacy, in the current urban context, they are seen as “messy,” more so due to the perceived “lower” class and caste of the vendors.

A few years back, the three wholesale flower markets of Delhi, which used to set up only for a few hours early every morning, were relocated from within the city to “an exclusive, centralized marketplace” at its fringes. Not only did this lead to a loss in the daily incomes of the flower sellers, but also a loss of the multi-functional diversity and richness of three of the city’s popular public spaces. The city built by its people today seems to be in opposition to the city built by its authorities, struggling to hold ground.

The ongoing struggle of the book sellers of Daryaganj Sunday market can be seen as not just for their right to the city, but also as a struggle of the city from losing its temporal and informal spaces.

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