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Asia’s big air-cooler bazaar.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It’s a Dickensian sight. The driveway through the entrance gate is rutty. The clock on the clock tower doesn’t work. Men pee on the boundary wall. Mechanics drill holes into steel. Laborers haul cargoes in hand-pulled carts. All around are arranged thousands of air coolers, electric geysers, washing machines, water pumps, sandwich toasters and steel trunks, sometimes packed in colorful cardboard boxes.
Situated next to Ajmeri Gate in central Delhi, Kamla Market came up in 1951 to provide livelihood to the Partition refugees who came from what is now Pakistan. (Don't confuse the place with Kamla Nagar Market, which is in north Delhi.) Inaugurated by Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, and named after then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's deceased wife, it soon became Asia’s biggest bazaar for air-coolers. Later it also turned into a base for the city's goods transporters who set up little cabins at the market’s periphery. In the 1970s, the bazaar lost a little of its glory to another metalware market that came up elsewhere in the Capital. A few more years and Chinese imports further changed the dynamics. But like a well-oiled machine, Kamla Market continues to run evenly.
“Our coolers not only go to Delhi but also to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka,” says Ramu Mistry, a senior mechanic. 30 years ago, Mr Mistry ran away from his family home in Bahraich, a town in Uttar Pradesh. Coming out of New Delhi railway station, Ajmeri Gate side, he stepped straight into Kamla Market and never left it.
Then the bazaar was less congested. It manufactured electrical appliances and not just assembled them from different parts, as is the case now. Each shop had an in-built ‘mini factory’. The stricter anti-pollution enforcement applied in the late 1990s forced the closure of these fumy manufacturing units. That was the second setback to the market. The first was when a part of the workforce left to set up shops in Inderlok Market in Sarai Rohilia, central-west Delhi.
“But our coolers are better,” insists Mr Mistry. Reduced to assembling steel cabinets, jaalis, grass, water distribution pipes, fans, and pumps – all coming from factories in different parts of Delhi – into air coolers, the mechanic misses the time when he himself would manufacture these individual parts, right here in Kamla Market. “Earlier, we would make coolers of great quality which would last for 30 years,” says Mr Mistry. “Now the quality has gone down for we only assemble the parts. Besides customers want cheaper-priced coolers and there is no demand for superior units which are naturally very pricey.”
The price of plastic coolers in Kamla Market ranges from Rs 800 to Rs 3000; metal coolers range from Rs 1000 to Rs 12,000.
In 2006, the inexpensive Chinese goods made their entry into the market. “We are unable to manufacture as cheaply as the Chinese,” says Ashok Batra, general secretary, Kamla Market Welfare Association. “Local production plummeted; people lost their jobs.”
There are 271 shops in Kamla Market, which support 1,000 laborers. Mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, these sunken-cheeked men have no other home. During the day, they assemble and pack the appliances. In the night, they cook and sleep in the market’s corridors. Their unprivileged circumstances make it difficult to believe that these men could be familiar with the mechanics of fans and pumps. “They are no engineers but they are excellent laborers,” says Mr Batra. “And we shopkeepers direct them in the technicalities.” But shopkeepers too are no engineers? “Yes, we haven’t done engineering,” laughs Mr Batra. “But it’s in our blood.”
Note If you want to get a cooler or any other electrical appliance from Kamla Market, call Ramu Mistry at 9811-61-4042
The main entrance
The inaugaural slab
Making steel trunks
Ramu Mistry, the mechanic
Inside a transporter's office
Snacks for the soul
Making a transport booking
Hauling the cargo
Taking a break
The world of Kamla Market