The corner junction where Shaikh Memon street meets the Lohar Chawl lane in Mumbai is a stage setting for a play that happens here every day of the week. The play is enacted by actors who are street vendors. They walk from one end of the loosely defined and no-shape corner to another and then back again. They sell goods for real. You can buy a plastic tablecloth, a dancing doll, clips for your clothesline or a stuffed toy for your child.
You wish the vendors would wear colourful masks so you could spot them more easily. Later, as you view this amazing phenomenon from the upper storey of a nearby building, you realise that they are each carrying their goods in an identical blue bag which hangs from their shoulders with some of the goods being held in different ways either in one hand or both hands. It seems the word ‘person’ derives from the Greek word meaning mask or the role played by an actor in a dramatic performance. Maybe, they ARE wearing a mask. Masks allow one to pretend, don’t they? Here are vendors who are pretending they are just pedestrians, a face no different from the others, no identity revealed. If and when the police approach, the goods move from the hands to a large blue bag and now they are truly pedestrians only.
This is the story of livelihoods and the story of a changing city. The people of Mumbai find entrepreneurial opportunity literally at every corner. Actually, it is not every corner that is found suitable for business. Almost all the streets that are perpendicular to the Crawford market building are high density shopping areas. Some streets are exclusive zones for stationery items, some for textiles, some for light fittings and so on. This brings us to the issue of why this corner and not any other corner down that entire road. There is the Abdul Rehman street corner. This phenomenon did not take root there.
As I talk to one of the shopowners on Shaikh Memon street, I learn that this is the corner with the maximum footfalls. It is the meeting point of the Crawford market entrance, the Lokmanya Tilak road that connects Crawford market to Metro Cinema, the entry point for Lohar chawl (market for electrical & hardware goods) and the Shaikh Memon street that leads to the Jama masjid, to the Mulji Jetha wholesale textile market beyond the mosque and to the Zaveri Bazaar (Mumbai’s gold jewellery market) It is also at this junction that people get off the taxis to enter any of these shopping streets. This corner becomes the crossing of many paths and it is where street vendors can do the most profitable business.
This corner phenomenon is a Clustering of retail that is perhaps not so common. The street entrepreneurs or bazaar entrepreneurs make their choices about locations in unconventional ways. They seem to be very observant of the physical changes within the city, whether it is a widespread inner city core area or a single shopping street. It is not uncommon to find new retail shopping rhythyms merging with existing rhythyms and the gradual dependence of one over the other with the passage of time.
As in many Indian cities, the bazaar is the nucleus of the city. It has been the starting point of the commercial development of the city. Here, in Mumbai, Crawford market has been the central fruit and vegetable market. It has also been selling dryfruits and spices for several decades now. It was also a place where many people, especially the Anglo-Indians came to buy pets. It was a market that catered to western tourists who visited Bombay and to the affluent citizens residing in South Bombay.
Some of the owners of formal shops believe that the street vending brings vibrancy to the area. Without the street vendors, the Shaikh Memon-Lohar Chawl corner would not be as lively and attractive as it is now. The street vendors selling products at cheap prices are a crowd puller. Once people start frequenting these areas for their regular shopping, they also begin to visit the formal shops and the shopowners benefit from the impulse purchases that result.
Some time ago, due to a vigilant Municipal Commissioner, there were raids by the municipality twice a week. This went on for over 15 months. The street hawkers would vacate their places and their goods would often be confiscated. Their business suffered heavy losses. During this period, Shaikh Memon and the other streets here had almost no hawkers.
As per the Government regulations on Street vendors in Mumbai, this street has been declared as a ‘No Hawking zone’ and even today, it is a street where hawking is officially not permitted. However, business goes on as usual for the hawkers. They do pay hafta or an unofficial fee to the police regularly. According to the shopowers, they have a strong lobby and are a vote bank for the local MLAs who permit them to operate here.
With no investments to be made on renting a selling space and no overheads, the street vendors are able to offer the customer a good price on household and other goods and people continue to shop here in large numbers. The shopowner who has been sharing his insights with me has the corner shop that faces the “corner phenomenon”. He has been selling branded ready-to-wear garments, labels such as Scullers and Indigo Nation. This shop has been owned by the same family since 1926. During the pre-independence days, it sold dinner crockery and silverware. Later, it became a shop selling textiles and linen and is now in the readymade garment sector.
With real estate prices in South Mumbai being extremely high, more and more people are opting to find a place of residence in the northern suburbs. Although many of these people work in South Mumbai and commute daily to work, they prefer to return home immediately after work hours on the weekdays and shop at the shopping centers within their own local neighbourhoods. For shops in the Crawford market area, business has dwindled over the years. The owners of formal shops believe that if it were not for the street vending, business would have been even more bleak for them.
Dadar Flower market
Fish market Mumbai
This post is part of the ‘Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival’ on the theme ‘Memorable City Experiences’ which is posted by Denise Pulis at her blog ‘Travel with Denden’