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Claiming Urban Space as a Public Good: The case of the indigenous market ('Santhe') in peri-urban Bangalore

Claiming Urban Space as a Public Good: The case of the indigenous market (Santhe) in peri-urban BangaloreThis is representative image

After lying dormant for a few decades, the indigenous market or 'santhe' has made a comeback in Doddagubbi village, located on the north-eastern outskirts of Bangalore. People have been excitedly telling me that it is being held on every Wednesday for the past one month, so I made a visit to see for myself.

All along the main road and market square of Doddagubbi, one could see vegetables and fruits neatly laid out in small stacks, waiting to be bought. All the items were smaller in size than those available in the supermarket and nothing was priced above Rs. 10. It was value for money. There was brisk business as these perishable items, fresh from the neighbouring farms and wholesale markets of Bangalore, were sold at almost half the rate when compared to the prices in the 'value marts' of the city. Spinach was a mere Rs. 5 a bunch while the same costs Rs. 10 in the shopping mart. Lime which is at a premium in hot weather was selling at only Rs. 2 per piece. I picked up a small stack of limes for Rs. 10 whereas in the supermarket I would have got only 2 limes for the same price. A watermelon, small in size, was available for Rs. 10 whereas in the shopping centre, I would have to give Rs. 40 for a bigger one which would invariably go waste due to its large size. Not only that, the fruits and vegetables are fresh, tasty and suitable for a small household like mine, consisting of my husband and myself. On the other hand, I had found the farmers' markets in Canada very expensive and meant for a niche market, way beyond the average man's pocket.
There were both men and women selling the goods. Narayanamma and her husband specialize in coriander leaves and curry leaves which they carry in a sack on their two-wheeler. They said that they move from santhe to santhe taking their wares along with them. This is their full-time occupation. Akash, a young man in his twenties, said that he spends two days of the week buying the goods and the remaining five days selling them in various santhes. He sells only potatoes and onions which have a longer shelf life. He buys his wares from the wholesale market of Yeshwantpur on Mondays and Saturdays. On different days of the week, he sells his wares in Bagalur, Chikkajala, Hosakote, Sulibele, apart from Doddagubbi, all erstwhile villages located in north-east Bangalore. His daily working hours are from 7 am to 8 pm. His investment is Rs. 50,000 a week and he makes a profit of Rs. 5000 on that investment.
The state, through its panchayat institutions, must extend financial credit and give all manner of assistance to these small-scale entrepreneurs. This is what financial inclusion is all about.
In the absence of a good education and employment opportunities for the youth, (Deucher, A. (2014), many young men and women in these parts have joined the land and sand mafias. These youth, on the other hand, have found an honourable livelihood through the 'santhe' and this is commendable. And it is a win-win situation since the villagers can procure fresh vegetables and fruits at a price they can well afford, right at their doorstep. The Doddagubbi santhe is very popular with the people of Doddagubbi.
There is another advantage. The people of these villages have claimed the open space of the village market square as a common good to retail their wares. Space is at a premium in globalizing India as the globalizing agents want people to make way for Smart Cities with industrial corridors, freeways and highways, malls and what-have-you. It is the poor who will be called upon to make the sacrifice. Space in India which was freely available at one time, has now become commodified as a much sought after private good. I became aware of this phenomenon when I sat on the steps of a mall on Brigade Road in the centre of Bangalore only to be unceremoniously shunted out by a security guard. But the return of the 'santhe' has ensured that the village square will remain free for all to set up their wares.
The 'santhe' has the backing of the local gram panchayat. 'Village fairs' is one of the 29 subjects which have been devolved by the State to the Panchayat as per Schedule 11 of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution.
It is the gram panchayat chairman, close as he is to the people who vote for him, who can come up with and implement ideas like the santhe and give it the legitimacy it deserves. Hence, it is not just a case of squatting on the village floor but it has the acquiescence and blessings of the statutory panchayat.
Doddagubbi has a dynamic, young gram panchayat chairman who also conducts the Maramma jatra (procession) in the village, held in April, with great aplomb. Such acts endear the statutory panchayat to the people and make it relevant in their lives. It strengthens the grass-roots institution and it also has the potential to bring in some revenue for the panchayat as each vegetable seller has to pay a small fee for selling his wares. Doddagubbi has not yet started charging a fee.
India has to develop according to its own genius. There is no point in allowing ourselves to be dictated by global capital who have only their own profits in mind. Romi Khosla in an article titled "India's Urban Landscape: Black towns of the 21st century" (Khosla R. 2017) warns us that India may fall into a global debt trap akin to that of bankrupt Greece, if she mindlessly promotes mega-infrastructure projects. When the world, and global capital with it, is winding down, it may indeed be dangerous to take up projects on a lavish scale.
This is not to say that mega-projects should be eschewed altogether but that there should be a judicious mix of mega and micro projects of the santhe type. We should look for balanced growth rather than a high GDP.
India has been an important trading post for centuries. Do we need a Walmart to teach us how to buy and sell? It is like teaching an old cock sparrow to pick pebbles. Do we need expensive overheads like cold chains when, in our hot climate, people consume only fresh food? These are questions that we should ponder over before we imitate western practices merely to line the pockets of corporations.
Deucher, A. (2014) "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Transitions to (Un)Employment for Lower Middle Class Young men" Economic and Political Weekly, April 26, Vol.XL1X No 17, pp 104-111.
Khosla, R. (2017) "India's Urban Landscape: Black towns of the 21st century", Economic and Political Weekly, January 7, Volume L11 No. 1, pp 92-101.

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