10 years of wait

Baisakhi market vendors who have paid for stalls inside the mall are being refused space

By Brinda Sarkar in Calcutta
  • Published 4.03.19, 5:20 PM
  • Updated 4.03.19, 5:20 PM
  • 4 mins read
  •  
Vendors of Baisakhi market demonstrate at the entrance of AMP Vaisaakkhi mall on Wednesday. Brinda Sarkar

Shop owners of Baisakhi market went on strike from Wednesday demanding space inside the AMP Vaisaakkhi mall.

In 2008, the then CPM-led civic body had asked them to move out of the streets to a ground behind so a mall could be built. They were promised accommodation inside it once the mall came up.

They were given a deadline of 18 months but it’s been almost 11 years. AMP Vaisaakkhi mall has got built and shops and offices are operating inside it. But these vendors are left high and dry, without requisite documents empowering them to move in.

“There’s a limit to our patience,” says Somnath Dey, secretary of Baisakhi Bajar Byabsayee Samity. “There are nearly 200 of us working in trying conditions for 11 years when the mall next door has excellent facilities ready for us. Then why is the civic body not allowing us to move in?”

Back story

Some of these vendors had started hawking around the Baisakhi Island over 40 years ago. “It must have been around 1978,” says Jyotindra Chandra Biswas, one of the oldest vegetable sellers here. “We were the lifeline for residents of Baisakhi Abasan.”

A few years later when the authorities starting building the road at the junction, the hawkers were asked to move to a field nearby. In the 80s, they moved a second time when AG Block Primary School came up on that plot.

The latest shift was in 2008 when the Left Front-run municipality entered a public-private joint venture with AMP Universal to build AMP Vaisaakkhi mall at the space they used to occupy.

“They built us a make-shift market of tin and bamboo in an empty plot behind the mall and said we could move into the new premises in 18 months,” says president of the body Nibaran Naskar.

By 2010, the 200-odd vendors had paid the municipality between Rs 10,000 and 20,000 for their shops and stalls. In April that year, finance minister Asim Dasgupta handed them allotment letters.

The mall was formally inaugurated in 2014. A mix of office and retail space, the nine-storeyed building now has a Spencer’s grocery store, clothes shops, multi-activity centre inside and even an artificial football and cricket ground on the terrace.

The private owners of the mall declined comment on Wednesday but had spoken to The Telegraph Salt Lake during their 2014 inauguration. They had said that as per their agreement, certain portions of the mall would be under the civic body. This is where the hawkers were supposed to be put up.

Part of this space is visible through the vents on the ground floor of the mall. It is spacious, neat and numbered for stall-keepers. They would have space to sit on a raised platform and store their goods in an enclosure underneath.

But such is the red tape that the hawkers are stuck with their backs to the wall. And even that wall is collapsing.

Market from hell

Anyone visiting Baisakhi market for the first time would think twice before entering.

The place has 12 collapsible gates, not one of which is intact. Most have rusted away and are missing inches from the bottom. Others have been tied to bamboo sticks with ropes, defeating the purpose of a metallic gate in the first place. Some have collapsed altogether and have been removed.

This has become a security concern as their wares get stolen at night.  

The current spot. The lanes are muddy, the bamboo poles lean to the sides.
The current spot. The lanes are muddy, the bamboo poles lean to the sides. Brinda Sarkar
A branch has fallen on the roof and broken it, leaving the reservoir exposed to the elements.
A branch has fallen on the roof and broken it, leaving the reservoir exposed to the elements. Debasmita Bhattacharjee
The collapsible gate tied to a bamboo pole next to it.
The collapsible gate tied to a bamboo pole next to it. Debasmita Bhattacharjee

The narrow alleys are full of puddles and mice have destroyed the foundation of the market. “The bamboos we had dug into the ground have eroded at the bottom. They are hanging from the top instead of providing support from the base,” says Atanu Giri, who runs an egg shop.

During the squall last year these bamboos gave way. “It was during peak hours and the roof collapsed over some fishmongers. Eighteen customers and vendors were injured, including two who fell on the bnonti. It’s a miracle they survived.”

The market has a single tap, from which the vendors store water in a reservoir. “But a branch fell and broke the roof over it. Now the reservoir has no cover. Birds defecate on it, cows dunk their heads into it and we have to drink and bathe from it,” says Giri.

With the gates out of the way, dogs are known to run in and attack chickens when they peep their heads out of their coops. There is no electricity and the tin structure becomes a furnace in summer. Some use solar fans, some candles and the rare few who can afford it, generators.

“This market was built to last 18 months. It’s way past its expiry date. There will be accident after accident if we continue to stay here,” says vegetable vendor Pradip Dey, who runs out of the market during thunderstorms in fear of the roof falling overhead.

Voice of protest

Baisakhi market was shut on Wednesday and the vendors sat for a demonstration at the entrance of the mall. They plan to continue the demonstration through relay till they see action.

“We have spoken to former councillor Rebecca Sultana, current councillor Anita Mondal, mayor Sabyasachi Dutta, minister Firhad Hakim and even went to the chief minister’s house. But they are all making us go around circles without issuing us possession certificates. Without that, we cannot move in,” says a vendor. “Despite this, we are made to provide politicians items free of cost whenever they please. We have to even supply bhog items to feed guests at a Ganesh puja backed by a politician as well as pay subscription.”

For fishmonger Sahadeb Pramanik, selling under a cemented roof has been his lifelong dream. “When I started vending at Baisakhi, I was a bachelor. Today my son is 38 years old and I still have the same aspiration. So many of our colleagues have passed away waiting to move into the mall,” he sighs.

Local councillor Anita Mondal is aware of the problem but does not agree with the solution proposed by the vendors. “I want to write to the mayor and nullify their allotment which was done unfairly,” she says.

“Our chief minister is against evicting encroachers and so am I but not everyone allotted space by the previous government was a genuine hawker. Many of them simply got allotted as they were CPM supporters. So all names should be cancelled and a fresh list drawn up,” says Mondal.

Ever since the temporary market came up, new hawkers have mushroomed outside it. “Mondal had first said she would allow only 10 new hawkers but now there are 70,” says Naskar. “They’re eating into our market.”

Mondal says these new hawkers have a right to the mall space too. “Why should they be deprived if they are genuine hawkers? A fresh list should be drawn up taking everyone into account,” she argued. 

The base of one of the market’s gates has eroded and the overhead tile blown off. Plants now grow through the gate.
The base of one of the market’s gates has eroded and the overhead tile blown off. Plants now grow through the gate. Brinda Sarkar
The ready-to-use space for vendors inside AMP Vaisaakkhi mall.
The ready-to-use space for vendors inside AMP Vaisaakkhi mall. Brinda Sarkar