Every major city traditionally has a main market that withstands the test of times – the ups and downs of that particular city. Be it Chandni Chowk in old Delhi, Connaught Place in New Delhi, Hazratganj in Lucknow, Mall Road in Shimla, Raghunath Bazar in Jammu, each of these are famous market places of that particular city. Lal Chowk would be the perfect example of such a market of Srinagar city. Spread over a mile the market has two parallel roads (Residency Road and Maulana Azad Road) that converge southwards at Jahangir Chowk, with few side lanes at perpendicular to these. It is divided into various sub markets – Polo-View, Lambert Lane, Fairdeal Complex, Abi Guzar and bund area, Forest Lane, Gurdwara Lane, Budshah Chowk, Maisuma, HSHS, Jahangir Chowk, and Gonkhan and may be more. Though all markets are stand alone to some extent but it is together called Lal Chowk. With the changing demography there have been sea changes in the way traditional markets have changed but it is universal that the old and famous markets do retain their glory. But Lal Chowk doesn’t seem to be that lucky and is fading for reasons mentioned hereto.
Kashmir has seen unusual circumstances for last 3 decades, that is still unchanged, because of which few markets were completely wiped out, few had resurged after being down and out for years and few are falling in their grace and charm as days and years go by. Lal Chowk has borne the brunt and has been one of the worst hit markets. It’s continues to be so, mostly due to its ill luck as well as ill-conceived plans of both the administration as well as the locals. Be it hartal, crackdowns, spontaneous shutdowns, calendars, curfew and now lockdown – this area has been off more than it has been on. Once a bustling city center, it now is losing its sheen. It has lost on the existing shops and is failing in whatever has come up new or refurbished, be it the Ali Jan Complex or the Sangarmal Complex. In contrast, some old time city centers like Nowhatta, Jamia Market, Safa Kadal, Jawahar Nagar, Dargah, Maer Plan, or the new shopping entrants in uptown Sanat Nagar, Jawahar Nagar and Byepass area have gained lot of ground and people throng these markets for reasons of proximity and ease.
There are many natural as well as administrative (man-made) reasons for the downfall of Lal Chowk. With rapid urbanization and expansion of Srinagar city on all sides, with many local markets coming up. Also previously many people from other districts would throng Lal Chowk due to non-availability of many items locally, but now all districts have come up with every type of merchandise. Just a decade back all major offices were located in this area due to which footfall was high and this would indirectly lead them to purchase many a thing from the shops. But now all major offices have been shifted elsewhere which has resulted in less people coming here. Also Lal Chowk isn’t exclusive anymore, one gets all the stuff at peripheral shops and even in villages, so that attraction of getting different and exclusive stuff is gone. The era of online shopping has also subtracted a large number of customers especially the millennials who prefer online shopping to the hands-on one.
Administrative reasons and official apathy also have resulted in the downfall of this market. Lal Chowk houses paramilitary forces as well as local police on all sides (Ghanta Ghar, Palladium, Akhada Building, CTO & BSNL offices, Circuit House, Hanuman Mandir, Budshah bridge and patrolling parties). Barricades, concertina wires, and bunkers make it look more of a chhaavanee (cantonment). The local shopkeepers have been left high and dry for lack of management by traffic department in this all important commercial hub. Frequent traffic snarls and now the orders not to allow any vehicle to be parked anywhere is a deterrent for people to come here. Commuters find it difficult to walk long distances in order to reach their shopping destinations. Every day scores of vehicles are towed. Moreover, the roads all around stand dug out for drains, pipes, fibre laying etc. The lockdown due to corona outbreak has put the last nail in the coffin of Lal Chowk. For these obvious reasons many people are deliberately avoiding to shop in Lal Chowk which is unfortunate for the market.
Lal Chowk has lived up to its name with the highest political glitterati thronging here in the past (including PMs), holding of processions, dharnas and Ghanta Ghar dramas in its lap, been the entertainment capital of the city, seat of high level offices and also seen many debacles in last 3 decades. Unfortunately, from ‘Lal’ it has turned ‘Peela’ for last many years and lost most of its attraction. If the authorities don’t come up with a plan for its resurgence it may soon tuen into a dim and dull place.
As is the practice worldwide to encourage and preserve heritage markets we should also try to help this once bustling center to reemerge as one of the best places to shop. A joint effort by shopkeepers’ representatives, local administration (Civil, Traffic, Security), civil society members (representing customer interest) on regular basis can begin to look and settle the issues. Let us all strive to help Lal Chowk, and bring it back to life.
Dr Muzafar Maqsood Wani IS Consultant Nephrologist, SKIMS, Srinagar