Old Delhi’s Book Market Move is Classist And Bad Urban Planning

More than 100 booksellers disappeared after Daryaganj’s legendary book market moved to new location.

5 min read
Shopkeepers had displayed all the books in the open under the scorching sun.

The Daryaganj Sunday Book Market was one of the most prominent cultural imaginations of being a Dilliwala which has existed for close to fifty years now. There was an unsaid order to this chaos, in the way the shopkeepers would arrange themselves from the stretch between Delite Cinema on Asaf Ali Road to Golcha Cinema on Netaji Subhash Road.

People knew exactly where the shopkeepers selling competitive exam guide books are clustered and where one could find niche books related to gardening or architecture. Unless I wanted to purchase a specific book or edition, I used to visit the book market just before noon. At that time, shopkeepers would start selling off books at throwaway prices, much to the delight of broke college students like me.

It has now been almost three months since the Daryaganj Sunday Book Market is not operating at its original location and book vendors have been asked to relocate to another location—Mahila Haat, an open-air complex in front of Delite Cinema originally meant for women entrepreneurs to showcase and sell their products.

Mahila Haat, an open-air complex in front of Delite Cinema.
Mahila Haat, an open-air complex in front of Delite Cinema.
Photo: Aditya Ajith

Book Market’s Move Misses the Plot

The municipality has clarified that they are simply following court orders which has directed civic authorities to remove any kind of encroachments on public/ government land. The municipality has already claimed their move of allocating Mahila Haat, as an alternate site for book market, as a success story. The civic body believes that through this move they have satisfied the requirements of general public, shopkeepers and customers. However, as an urban planner I want to highlight few missed elements.

The old book market was set up under the colonnaded space along Asaf Ali Road and adjacent to multi-storey shops along Netaji Subhash Road, thus providing shade and comfort to shopkeepers and customers. The market had emerged spontaneously and gelled with the existing architecture of the place. This made the old market climate responsive and suited to the prevailing local conditions.

Last Sunday, when I visited the Sunday Book Market at Mahila Haat, I observed that the shopkeepers had displayed all the books in the open under the scorching sun, much to the dismay of customers at large. Since the civic authorities are hell bent on keeping the market at Mahila Haat, it would be appropriate to provide the shopkeepers a covered space by erecting a roof over the space allotted to book sellers.

Shopkeepers had displayed all the books in the open under the scorching sun.
Shopkeepers had displayed all the books in the open under the scorching sun.
Photo: Aditya Ajith

Another key element that the new space misses, is the urban planning principle of ‘integration’. None of my visits to the Daryaganj Sunday Book Market would be complete without gulping down a lassi and having sumptuous Old Delhi savouries which were available easily along the market.

Currently, there is no diversity in the items available at the Haat, and you cannot even get a cup of tea or water while scanning the books. The new Mahila Haat arrangement rather seems like an island of books without any connection with the larger Old Delhi market. This isolation completely takes away the charm of a leisurely stroll in the market. Thus, it may help if the civic authorities at least allocate some space within the Haat for allied services and setting up water kiosks at regular intervals.

I also see this as a big opportunity missed on the part of the civic authorities to develop a vibrant pedestrianised zone by cordoning off traffic for few hours on Sunday mornings. It would have created a city culture which celebrates books, walking and the spirit of being together, which every Dilliwallah is proud of.

Process of Relocating Vendors

The process is as important as the end goal. With an existing Street Vendors Act 2014 and subsequent Rules and Scheme notification for Delhi, it becomes imperative for civic agencies to follow these statutes in their true spirit. The Act not only calls for regulation of street vending but also focuses on protection of livelihoods of street vendors.

Town Vending Committees, which are an integral part of Street Vendors Act, 2014 have to be consulted for taking every decision pertaining to the regularisation and relocation of street vendors. Unless there was an emergency or a desperate public purpose, the due process through Town Vending Committees should have been followed in this case.

There were roughly 270 vendors who used to operate in the old market. Even after two months, I observed that only 150-170 have set up their shops in the new location. Many of the book sellers felt compelled to set up their shops to earn some money for their families and admitted that they could not keep on protesting against a system which was unwilling to listen. But the fact remains—where have the remaining 100-odd book sellers gone? A hundred jobs and associated revenue lost!

Many of the book sellers admitted that they could not keep on protesting against a system which was unwilling to listen.
Many of the book sellers admitted that they could not keep on protesting against a system which was unwilling to listen.
Photo: Aditya Ajith

Whose Right to the City is It Anyway?

The move, which has already resulted in the disappearance of hundred-odd book sellers, is utterly classist. In a way, the decision to tinker with a second hand book market is also an attempt to block access to affordable knowledge to the less privileged. It particularly impacts those students and youngsters who cannot afford purchasing high end books for competitive exam preparation.

The severe lack of public libraries and equitable education opportunities, along with such attacks on access to cheap and quality literature is bound to make a deeply divided and insensitive society. Soon, only the rich will have access to good books and thus good education, while the poor will get martyred in this knowledge war.

When the city does not consider parking on the streets in Chittaranjan Park and Greater Kailash as encroachment, it is rather ironic that it feels strongly about the case of street vendors. Is this the direction where we need to go? While I am a firm believer that our cities must evolve with better infrastructure and upgraded services, the process of deliverance of these services must not be exclusionary. Therefore, I feel it is too soon to celebrate the move as a success story which has covered all the bases.

(Aditya Ajith is an Urban Planner  and graduated from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He was a recipient of the prestigious Nuffic scholarship. Currently, he is engaged as a Fellow under the Chief Minister’s Urban Leaders Fellowship, Government of Delhi. He tweets @golemarketwala. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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