Delhi riots: How life was snuffed out in Asia’s largest readymade garment hub

Gandhi Nagar market’s supply chain was disrupted as finished goods mostly came from the riot-hit areas like Seelampur, Jaffrabad, and Welcome

About half a million people are dependent one the Gandhi Nagar Market for their livelihood. Photo: Twitter

One of the casualties of the riots that hit Delhi nearly five months ago is the Capital’s Gandhi Nagar garment hub. Often described as one of the biggest markets of readymade garments in Asia, the brisk, wholesale trading centre at Gandhi Nagar in East Delhi has been crippled due to the communal violence that recently rocked nearby areas.

This is mainly so because the riots have disrupted the market’s supply chain of finished goods which mostly came from the riot-hit areas like Seelampur, Jaffrabad, and Welcome. These and a few other adjacent areas saw widespread rioting that resulted in the loss of at least 55 lives, besides largescale destruction of property.

The clashes unexpectedly took place during US President Donald Trump’s last India visit. And, this caused quite a bit of worry to the administration and even Trump was asked about the violence that started on February 23 and continued during his jaunt in Delhi. He had to face a question in this regard during a press conference at the Capital’s Hyderabad House on February 25. He expressed satisfaction over religious freedom in India and said, “as far as the individual attack, I heard about it but I didn’t discuss that with him (Prime Minister Narendra Modi). That’s up to India.”

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Though Gandhi Nagar was not directly affected by the riots, its market has for long been an eyesore for America. For years, the US Trade Representative (USTR), which functions under the executive office of the US President, has been putting Gandhi Nagar Market under its list of ‘notorious markets.’ As per USTR reports, these markets spread across many countries of the world, sell counterfeit products using American trademarks and brand-names. This, in the US estimate of things, is in violation of IPR, or intellectual property rights, of American firms, causing them losses.

The 2016 report of USTR that serves as America’s global anti-piracy watchdog says, “Gandhi Nagar is highlighted for counterfeit apparel while Burma Bazaar (in Chennai) is highlighted for a wide variety of counterfeit goods and pirated media discs. Kashmere Gate (Delhi) is an example of a market allegedly selling counterfeit auto parts. The United States continues to raise the importance of IPR protection and enforcement with India, underscoring the need to combat counterfeiting and piracy in both online and physical markets. The United States encourages India to take sustained and coordinated enforcement action at these and other previously-listed markets, as well as numerous other nominated markets.”

The communal clashes served a blow to the bustling Gandhi Nagar market in more ways than one: the small tailoring and other processing units of garments sold in the market happened to be in riot-hit localities like Seelampur, Welcome, and Jaffrabad. These got shut in the wake of riots and workers employed by them fled to what they thought to be safer zones.

Among other things, Gandhi Nagar Market has been famous for selling cheap imitations of brands like Levis and Wrangler jeans and jackets. These are American brands over which the US has for long been asserting its companies’ trademark and urging the Indian government to take strict action to stop counterfeiting. In the past, there have been raids and confiscation of the ‘fake brands’ by Delhi police at shops in Gandhi Nagar.

In 2013-14, an Indian voluntary organisation called Fair Trade Forum participated in a study conducted by the European Union of Delhi’s Gandhi Nagar Market. O.P. Yadav, who participated in the study on behalf of the forum, says it was a EU project of three years’ duration and the forum was associated with it as a consulting body for a specified period of six months. He declined to comment any further on the project or the study’s findings. [He is the forum’s joint-secretary now].

The forum took the help of a few social workers who have been active in Seelampur and Jaffrabad areas. One of them said on condition of anonymity that ‘labels and lapels of the apparels made in the area and sold at Gandhi Nagar Market were collected at the time of the study.’

Talking of the present state of affairs in the area, both Yadav and the other social worker agree that the riots played a very detrimental role and badly affected the localities and its poor inhabitants.

The Gandhi Nagar Market has about 15,000 closely jutted and heavily stacked shops spread through its numerous alleys. These shops, in normal times, had an average turnover of ₹50 crore a day; courtesy the retailers and traders who trooped in droves from many neighbouring and even far off states for bulk purchases. Now, it has become quite lean, since the riots. The debilitating effect of riots on the trade became palpable during the festival of Holi in March, less than two weeks after the riots.

The hope of restarting trade post-Holi was dashed by the COVID-induced lockdown that came within a month of the widespread rioting. Yadav, whose organisation deals in trades like textile and handicraft, says the main problem is that there is no demand. So, even if production is brought back to normal, there would be no buyers.

About half a million people are dependent one the Gandhi Nagar Market for their livelihood. Today, many shops in the area do not open and those which opened after the lockdown hardly got any customers.

Some estimates put the number of shops that are yet to lift shutters at 20 per cent of the total number of sales outlets. These may have to close permanently if trade doesn’t pick up soon. It is the case mainly because rents of shops in Gandhi Nagar are quite high, according to those familiar with issues related to the market.

So, both riots and the row regarding the alleged use of foreign trademarks have turned Gandhi Nagar’s garments market into a pale shadow of what it used to be in the past. And as a vibrant market is dying, a largely indifferent government is busy investigating cases that occurred during the riots as per its preferences.

This may well suit its vote bank. But the steps taken by it thus far after the riots have, indeed, left not only the market to its fate but also lakhs of people, who eked out a living from the market, in the cold. The growing hardships cuts across a communal divide. Yet, the powers-that-be appear to be unfazed by such grim facts of life, haunting the market and its many dependents.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He tweets @abidshahjourno)



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