Out of the three bomb blasts in Delhi last week, two of them that caused the most damage exploded in the bustling street markets of Paharganj and Sarojini Nagar. The choice of these locations by the terrorists must have been to inflict maximum casualties due to the large presence of Diwali shoppers. Anyone from India is well aware that most of the shopping be it clothes, gifts, sweets, etc is done during the days prior to Diwali (the primary Hindu festival of lights); much like the Christmas shopping in the West. Although lately shopping malls have mushroomed rapidly all over the urbanscape, people still prefer thronging the street markets in search of bargains. Moreover, haggling over prices before making a purchase is not only expected but in fact encouraged and forms a distinct cultural characteristic of Indian shoppers. Haggling, they say, is an art and virtually taught by the household elders purely by demonstrating the art by dragging their reluctant children along for shopping. This makes the marketplace a noisy place surprisingly thought to be a distinguishing mark of an Indian place for trade. Scarcity of land is nothing new in an organic city and mostly, such bustling markets tend to be dense without room for maneuvering let alone walking leisurely, especially during festival times. Akshay’s description of a similar street market in Pune tells you a little more than dense conditions of these localities. The image above is from Pune, and not Delhi but it gives you a sense of the marketplace.
A nice column in Indian Express revealed that the markets of Paharganj and Sarojini Naidu share a bond with the World Trade Center Towers that were targeted by the terrorists not so long ago:
“Sarojini Nagar and Paharganj both began decades ago, as friendly neighbourhood markets for the low-budget housewife, selling achars and achkans, saris and stoves. They still sell those but when the winds of globalisation swept through Delhi a decade ago, it was Sarojini Nagar and Paharganj which were the first to reinvent themselves as the Retail Paradise for the new consumer-citizen (the shopper) and new entrepreneur-citizen (the shopkeeper).”
So, terrorists targeted not only dense concentrations of people of a certain demographic but also tried to attack the capitalistic trade spirit that they so abhor. So what does this signify for open street markets in today’s world of terror? Are they virtually sitting-ducks for a crazed terrorist? Any semblance of order is virtually impossible in such markets due to the very nature of their growth. Any forms of regulation, either of traffic or entry restriction will kill the spirit of the place and people will tend to keep away anyway, thus killing the business in the area.
Can design or planning ideas be of any help? Maybe not; because any intervention even if it is intended to reduce risk will be eyed as attempts to drive out businesses. Most businesses in the area are small merchants who often do not own the land they occupy. Any change or regulation toward suspicious activity has to come from within. Dense communities are always considered more friendly and personal. Any control or suspicious behavior will have to be monitored from within. Although they look disorganized, the retailers within such a street market usually are associated with some kind of organization. These organizations can take pro-active measure to reduce excessive density that can let suspicious elements get away with their sly activities. As Jane Jacobs said, an eye on the street is the best form of safety that a city can lend. People are often wary of indulging in anti-social behavior if they feel that they will be easily identified by unknown eyes on the street. A little widening of the space that they do business in will not only streamline the flow of their customers, thus bringing in more but also lend a pleasing shopping experience that most people desire.