Suvrata Chowdhary is assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata (Courtesy: Ashish Kumar Yadav)

In Conversattion with Suvrata Chowdhary: Historical Markets in the Heart of Urban Delhi

in Interview
Published on: 17 September 2019

Ashish Kumar Yadav

Ashish Kumar Yadav is a graduate student from Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He completed his undergraduate studies with a major in Economics and minor in the Journalism. He has done research projects on topics ranging from market and education to history and culture and is co-founder of an NGO named Academia Society.

Suvrata Chowdhary is assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata. Her doctoral degree focused on understanding the informal markets in India.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted over phone on September 22, 2018. 


Ashish Kumar Yadav:  What is hafta bazaar and how would you situate it in urban spaces? What is the significance of the mahila hafta bazaar?

Suvrata Chowdhary: A sustainable phenomenon in Delhi’s urban landscape, hafta bazaars follow a traditional style of buying and selling where a group of vendors come together on a specific day and time of the week. Small traders display their items in fixed physical boundaries in open spaces they pay for. These spaces may or may not be authorised by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

Hafta bazaars—also known as haat, saptahik bazaar or tehbazari—cater to a diverse range of customers who gather to buy daily necessities such as fruits and vegetables as well as garments, utensils and shoes. A very important part of India’s informal economy, they are also socially and culturally significant to the identity of Delhi. This practice continues from the tradition of farmers, artisans, cattle herders and folk artists gathering as vendors in village squares. The hafta bazaar culture in urban spaces allows migrant labour populations to be a part of the city’s informal market economy and, by extension, its sociocultural make-up.

Mahila bazaars work on similar principles though only women traders and vendors can sell commodities there.

AKY: What is the history of these markets? How did they come to be?

SC: Hafta bazaars existed for long in the rural context, but for Delhi we can trace its history to the period of Mughal rule. Battles were fought, dynasties came and went but these markets survived the test of time. The Ashraf (nobles) families rose and fell but these Ajlaf (the lower orders) markets lived on.

These markets were set up by travelling traders who gathered in different places each day of the week. Going around the city, one can notice that wherever there is a weekly market it is in the shadows of a forgotten or hidden village. The weekly markets catered to these small villages. Punjabi and Sindhi refugees from Pakistan had nothing to provide for themselves and their families, so they would walk around the neighbourhoods selling utility products. They came to be known as pheriwallahs. The earliest market started by these people was at the Red Fort where they would gather on a particular day of the week. The strength of these markets is in the economic and social ties shared by the actors involved.

Mahila bazaar started in 2007 as an initiative of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to empower urban poor women. SEWA, a women’s trade union originally based in Ahmedabad, expanded to several other cities, including Delhi, with the aim of providing full employment to women and thus making them self-reliant. 

AKY: Who are the people currently associated with these markets?

SC: Vendors and traders are migrant workers who use these markets as a means of livelihood.

The hafta bazaar customer base is vibrant and includes people across classes. However, class structure becomes apparent in the buying pattern of the customers. Working-class people explore all their needs in these markets, which is why hafta bazaars are also called the malls of the poor. The upper-middle class visits to buy fresh fruits and vegetables but refrains from eating in these spaces. School and college students buy cheap and trendy clothes here.

AKY: Could you elaborate on the economic and cultural significance of these markets?

SC: Hafta bazaars amount to more than 30 per cent of the trade of formal markets such as Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazaar and Inderlok. They work as a distribution network for these larger markets. Many small manufacturing industries make products according to the taste of the weekly markets. Hafta bazaars also provide employment to more than 2.5 lakh people in Delhi alone. We can see how they play a very significant role in the economy.

It would not be incorrect to say that hafta bazaars have a renewed significance in these neoliberal times when fashion tastes are constantly defined by popular culture. Hafta bazaars, selling duplicates of products worn by protagonists in TV serials and movies, make fashion accessible to the less privileged.

Weekly bazaars, as they are wont to keeping up with the trend, also prepare themselves for particular festivals. They stock up according to people’s needs on particular occasions.

If we talk about mahila bazaars, they not only help navigate class structures but also challenge the rigid gender roles defined by society.

AKY: How have these markets changed over the years?

SC: The hafta bazaar culture has been continually evolving. It was relevant in the Mughal times and is still important amidst the mall culture of the national capital.

These bazaars have their place in the hearts of the city’s population. Apart from stocking affordable products from local manufacturers, they now also stock products from multinational corporations, especially from countries like China and South Korea.

These markets can now be found in various other developed and developing countries where they cater to the need for cheap goods and employment of migrant Indian population.

AKY: In what ways do you think urbanisation, globalisation and modernisation—the shopping mall culture, for example—has affected the hafta bazaars?

SC: I would say that these local weekly markets are products of urbanisation and modernisation. Mechanised work in agriculture has reduced the labour required, forcing people to seek non-agricultural jobs, thus also forcing them to migrate to nearby cities. There has been a continuous increase in migration to cities. While some of these people get accommodated—as daily wage labourers in the informal market and factory workers, formally—there are many others who are left unemployed. The hafta bazaar culture absorbs this population and creates an interaction between them and the masses in search of affordable goods. Mall culture, on the other hand, is restrictive both in terms of affordability and accessibility.                                                

AKY: Are there any differences in rural weekly markets and urban weekly markets? How does the government see these types of markets in urban spaces?

SC:  There are differences in the buying, selling and organising patterns in rural and urban weekly markets. In rural markets, farmers gather to sell their surplus crops and utilities that come from nearby cities. The panchayat decides the date, time and place for the market.

The urban weekly markets have designated leaders who decide the place of operation and negotiate with the authorities on behalf of the vendors. The vendors are required to pay a minimal amount to the MCD if their business is authorised. In case of unauthorised businesses, the vendors bargain with the police for hafta (protection money) that they need to pay from time to time. The government sees these markets as illegal and a disturbance in the city but after the Street Vendor Act 2014, they have gained legal status under the right to livelihood.                                                

AKY:  How do you see these markets as social institutions?

 SC: These markets perform a very complex socioeconomic activity in our society. They stand in stark contrast to the walled opulence of the shopping malls. The hafta bazaars are democratic in the sense that anyone can buy, sell, come and go.

These markets keep alive the culture of bargaining and facilitate interactions between people in our highly mechanised age. Vendors in these markets have a sense of community, which extends to their relations with the buyers who are often returning customers. The associations of vendors are close-knit democratic organisations that fight for the rights of the sellers.                                              

AKY: Are there any defined gender roles that dictate the running of these markets? What is the change in proportion of women vendors compared to the past?

SC: Although you cannot see many women in the market space, they play a very important role behind the curtains. They are the invisible workforce that helps in preparing the final commodities to be sold in the markets.

Food items are prepared by women at home, men go and sell them in the market. Similarly, the piles of second-hand clothes carried to the markets are stitched and readied by women at home.

There was a general perception that these markets are not safe for women. However, gradually more women are coming forward. Initiatives like the mahila bazaar have helped in this regard.                                                 

AKY: Could you elaborate on the cultural diversity of the weekly markets? 

SC: The hafta bazaars, being open spaces, allow people from various castes and communities to be a part of them. This includes a large number of people from the Baniya caste (community of traders) who migrated from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and pockets of Madhya Pradesh to expand their businesses. These markets also provide space to Dalits, especially those who have migrated to the city in search of better opportunities. The leaders though are mostly locals. While in south Delhi, they are Gujjars (a landowning community) from Delhi and its nearby areas, Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana lead the markets in the eastern and northern parts of the city.