It’s host panic. The moment you realise that your guests will be here any minute and the place just doesn’t look ready. But instead of having to plump cushions, hide the kids’ toys or quickly vacuum the floors, Delhi is contemplating what to do with its beggars, the homeless – and flower sellers.
Delhi is cleaning up its act to impress the thousands of visitors due to arrive in October when the city hosts the Commonwealth Games, the sporting event that brings together nations that once belonged to the British Empire. It’s a surprisingly big deal.
The city’s centre, Connaught Place, is being given an intensive makeover to restore the whitewashed buildings to their colonial grandeur. Work on extensions to the Metro rail system are progressing, with fingers firmly crossed that they will be ready by October. But also in the broom’s path are the city’s flower sellers.
Currently, if you want to buy a basket of lotus flowers, strings of marigolds or a bunch of fragrant tuberoses, you have three main options. There’s the market around Old Delhi’s Fatephuri mosque, the car-park-cum-market opposite the Hanuman temple near Connaught Place, or the market in the historic Mughal-ruin dotted southern suburb of Mehrauli. They might be unregulated but they are colourful, smell great and add a much-needed dose of vitality to sometimes otherwise gritty urban surroundings.
“They are of great value and attract a lot of tourists,” says art curator Himanshu Verma, who heads the Genda Phool Project – a movement aimed at preserving Delhi’s floral spaces.
But city authorities plan to banish all the markets to a single space on the outskirts of Delhi, where they will rub shoulders with fish and poultry sellers – another source of angst for vegetarian Hindus, who buy flowers for religious ceremonies. The new market will be in an air-conditioned building in Ghazipur, on the main highway leading east out of Delhi.
“City areas are not the proper place for selling flowers,” says Brahm Yadav, chairman of the Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board, the body responsible for the move. “Now, flower sellers will operate under our control, and farmers will also get protection.”
While opponents, who are investigating legal avenues to stop the move, agree there is a need to organise a city that to outsiders can seem far from tame, they insist that public needs to be consulted first. “The move would be good for farmers and growers,” admits Verma. “We’re not opposed to the setting up of the new market, we’re just saying don’t take the old ones out of the city; rather, work out how to work with them.”
It’s a battle that has been fought in city after city. And who knows? If the move goes ahead the empty markets could take inspiration from London. When it moved its flower market from Covent Garden, the vacant space became the home of street theatre (well, people pretending to be statues) and chain stores. Hmm, perhaps not.