Last year, 35-year-old Farooq Ahmad Gojri purchased a consignment of clothes that he intended to sell throughout the year, at Kashmir’s famed weekly flea market, locally called the Sunday Market.

On a typical Sunday, the stretch from the Tourist Reception Centre to the Clock Tower in Srinagar’s commercial hub of Lal Chowk would be busy in one of the largest flea markets in the region.

Hundreds of push-carts laden with goods–be it clothing, household wares, electronics, furnishing and furniture, even books–dotted the stretch, their proprietors shouting catchy slogans to attract customers.

“You can say that whatever we earned, came mainly from there only,” said Mr. Gojri. “The day to day earning varies but sometimes we used to earn up to 3000 rupees at the [Sunday] market.”

However, Mr. Gojri’s stock of clothes has remained at his home in the Bemina area of Srinagar, unsold, as the weekly flea market has largely remained shut even as Srinagar’s brick and mortar commercial establishments have reopened after the lockdown restrictions were lifted in Kashmir.

Sunday market, Kashmir flee market
A view of Srinagar’s flee market before COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in J-K in March 2020. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Unreasonable restrictions

“Since the unlocking began,” rued Mr. Gojri, who has been in this business since the last twelve years after he dropped out of college to support his family, “every other market has been thrown open except Sunday Market.”

With the Sunday Market having been disrupted since August last year when a lockdown was enforced to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, street vendors like Mr. Gojri have suffered debilitating economic losses. “I am slowly trying to repay the wholesaler. I was sure that the stock would end before Eid but three Eids have passed since then,” said Mr. Gojri, “my stock is still untouched.”

It is now nearly two years of no business for the street vendors of the Sunday Market, the pandemic has only added to their woes. “They [the administration] tells us that there can be a spike in the number of cases. We are ready to work as per the [prevention] norms,” said Mr. Gojri.

But the fears of the coronavirus — and the slowing economy — have also seemingly kept customers at bay where push-carts are allowed to operate. “The number of people coming to buy from us has reduced immensely,” said 45-year-old Haroon Rashid.

For Mr. Rashid, too, The Sunday Market vastly increased his earnings but despair has taken over again. “I only earned around 500 rupees on weekdays but a day at the Sunday Market would fetch me around 2000 rupees,” he said.

With their incomes steadily dropping, Mr. Rashid, who had dropped out of school to sell shoes, said that there was little scope for the children of street vendors to pursue education and different careers. “When our children don’t have any sources of employment, they opt for the same thing to earn their livelihood,” he said.

The Sunday Market, said Deputy Mayor of Srinagar, Parvazi Qadri, was closed after “the district administration took the decision for the safety of people”.

“A scheme was created for them, under which all of them will be given 10000 rupees each,” said Mr. Qadri. “This is a quota for 10,000 people and they need to get themselves registered in order to get the money. Many people have already received the money but those who have not can come to us in order to register.”

Officials of the Srinagar District Administration–the Deputy Commissioner Shahid Choudhary, Additional Deputy Commissioner Hanif Balkhi–and the SMC–Commissioner Gazanfar Ali, and Joint Commissioner Abo Ali–did not respond to calls and texts from The Kashmir Walla.

“Should be allowed to open”

While even restaurants and cafes, with closed spaces, were thrown open after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted on 12 June 2020, the open-air Sunday Market remains disallowed. 

“If proper rules are created by the government and if social distancing can be ensured then the market should be allowed to open,” said Sana Mir, 24, postgraduate in psychology, who often shops at the Sunday Market.

Ms. Mir Mir misses the essence of the famous flea market as it has almost remained closed for a year now. “The prices are really good but they fluctuate. As far as the quality of products is concerned, one can find both the defective product as well as a really good product but usually, all the products are really good,” she said.

Tanveer Pathan, an elected councillor and chairperson of the Public Health and Sanitation works in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, said that “since every other sector including other markets, offices and even schools are being thrown open, even they should be allowed” and that “I will talk about this to higher authorities. And we will try to open it as soon as possible.”

The story originally appeared in our 21-27 September 2020 print edition.

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