Chandni Chowk revolves around hard cash

Updated on: Nov 03, 2017

The Capital’s Mughal-era marketplace struggles to deal with dictates of digital India

Around this time a year ago, Chandni Chowk in Delhi wore a desolate look with virtually no customers, all of whom had gone to queue up for hours outside various ATMs.

A year on, bang in the middle of the festive season, with the wedding season around the corner, Chandni Chowk — a go-to destination for wedding and festival shopping — is bustling a lot more. But its shopkeepers continue to wear a despondent look. The after-effects of the demonetisation of high-value notes on November 8, 2016, followed by the chaos surrounding the newly-introduced goods and services tax (GST) are weighing on them, and cynicism runs high. There is also a feeling that they are under scrutiny. However, none of them is willing to comment on any of this.

“In this country, whatever we say is taken against us, aisa mahaul ho raha hai (that’s the prevailing atmosphere). But the truth is, business is down by 50 per cent for me, even that is a conservative estimate. We haven’t recovered our money in two Diwali seasons, so it is difficult to say whether things would improve for us, or have improved... I don’t see this changing in the near future,” says Rakesh, a shopkeeper selling decorative items in Paranthe Wali Gali.

Dariba Kalan — Chandni Chowk’s silver street — has been around since the time of the Mughals, adjacent to the equally ancient Kinari Bazaar, a market specialising in decorative borders for clothing.

Mahesh Gupta, owner of the 225-year-old Shri Ram Hari Ram jewellers in Dariba Kalan, has seen better times. He claims the shop was set up by one of his ancestors who was a treasurer of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Though the two-storey shop is reasonably busy, he says business used to be a lot brisker before the note ban.

“How do you say that we have benefited from demonetisation? Even if money was made by some the night notebandi was announced, shops remained closed for the next 20 days, and there was no business for days after that. At a time when people didn’t have cash to buy regular grocery items, how would they buy gold and silver?” he asks. Asked if the situation has improved a year later, he replies in the negative.

“We can’t say for sure that the market has become better, but I know that in a regular year we would have at least 250 corporate clients purchasing silver or gold. I had zero corporate clients this year.” Over the years, his store had business ties with corporate houses such as the Goenkas and Tatas. As we speak, a customer approaches him with a chain and diamond pendant; he offers her 10 per cent discount on the condition of cash payment.

Kinari Bazaar next door is gleaming with tinsel; a closer look, however, reveals that the stocks are from last season. “What do we do with all the old stuff that no one bought last season?” complains Mukesh Jain, a wholesale trader dealing in packing material for bulk gifting.

“My business is down by 30 per cent. Customers do not want to buy anything expensive and are choosing the cheapest options. Spending is down, as no one is confident that the economy will bounce back,” says the shopkeeper whose shop is chock-full of packing items for bulk gifting, knick-knacks that have been around for over a year now, and beginning to look dusty.

The owner of another store, Popular Laces, terms GST and demonetisation a double whammy for the textile industry. “Earlier there was no tax on our product, now it is 18 per cent. That’s a clear loss of 18 per cent since we haven’t been able to raise prices in a situation where the demand remains low,” says Mahesh Jain.

Despite an increase in buyers since last November, the shopkeepers are struggling to keep their spirits up in a whole new world of business where cash is the new enemy.

Published on March 10, 2018

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