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Honey, I shrunk the big, fat wedding

Payel Majumdar Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Reeling on the edge: The wedding trousseau business (a Kinari Bazaar vendor pictured here) has also been severely affected by demonetisation. Photo: Payel Majumdar

Reeling on the edge: The wedding trousseau business (a Kinari Bazaar vendor pictured here) has also been severely affected by demonetisation. Photo: Payel Majumdar

Conspicuous by absence: Chandni Chowk’s Kinari Bazaar is generally packed to the rafters around November-December, the peak wedding season. But demonetisation has significantly slowed business and the streets are now verging on empty. Photo: Payel Majumdar

Conspicuous by absence: Chandni Chowk’s Kinari Bazaar is generally packed to the rafters around November-December, the peak wedding season. But demonetisation has significantly slowed business and the streets are now verging on empty. Photo: Payel Majumdar

Abrave face: Amit Poddar of Poddar Cards, in Chawri Bazaar, says his shop is facing closure. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Abrave face: Amit Poddar of Poddar Cards, in Chawri Bazaar, says his shop is facing closure. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  BusinessLine

Cash cow: The wedding market is a behemoth, valued at over ₹1,00,000 crore, and growing at a scale of 25-30 per cent annually, according to Business Insider. Photo courtesy: Tarun Tahiliani

Cash cow: The wedding market is a behemoth, valued at over ₹1,00,000 crore, and growing at a scale of 25-30 per cent annually, according to Business Insider. Photo courtesy: Tarun Tahiliani

Weathering the storm: Madan Pal, whose wedding card shop has seen more than four decades of business, reckons the market has dipped by “40-50 per cent”. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Weathering the storm: Madan Pal, whose wedding card shop has seen more than four decades of business, reckons the market has dipped by “40-50 per cent”. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  BusinessLine

Demonetisation has taken the wind out of the wedding industry, and Chandni Chowk, the Capital’s one-stop answer to all wedding requirements, has lost much of its sparkle

By the time you reach Charkhiwalan Gali in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, you have already cajoled, nudged and inched your way through half a mile of cheek-by-jowl traffic and shops — almost all of them vendors of wedding invites, almost all of them drowning in paper of different colours and textures. What’s that on the thela there? It’s paper. And that precariously balanced moped behind it? More paper. What’s hurtling towards you on four creaky legs, bearing a mountain on its back? An ancient car stacked with paper.

Your Super Mario skills may come handy while crossing the road around these parts; almost everything is snapping at your heels, and anything may sprout an engine and run you over. BL ink correspondents were at Chandni Chowk to gauge the effects of demonetisation on Delhi’s wedding industry, as also the many sub-industries that hinge on the wedding behemoth: card vendors, caterers, decorators, tent suppliers and so on.

Pravin Malhotra, a confident young man with the brisk manner of the enterprising Delhi trader, tells us there is no such thing as a bad year for the wedding industry. “ Dekho, logon ko kuch toh kehna rehta hai toh woh kahenge hi (Sometimes, people just say stuff for the sake of saying it),” he says, shortly after a couple of customers leave his shop without making a purchase. With the purchasing power of customers significantly reduced, aren’t his figures showing slowdown? Malhotra emphatically tells us, “I have been running this shop for the last three years and business is as good as ever. If there’s no cash, we take cards, simple.” No card-swiping machine could be spotted in his small shop. Significantly, he offers no figures to back up the as-good-as-ever braggadocio.

Fears about the authenticity of Malhotra’s claims are soon vindicated. Every 50-plus vendor we talk to, directly contradicts Malhotra’s statement.

An old-timer, who does not wish to be named, says: “There are at least 5,000 shops that sell wedding cards in Chandni Chowk. And even the smallest of them has been hit hard by notebandi (demonetisation).” Indeed, an advertisement hoarding paid for by the Congress looms large over the area. It says “ Notebandi se Modi mitr khush-haal, janta behaal (Demonetisation has made Modi’s friends happy, while the people are hapless).”

Madan Pal, a plump, garrulous vendor in his 50s, owns Suneja Card Emporium, one of the oldest and swankiest shops in the area; well-lit, spotless and about twice as big as the average shop on this street. Between mouthfuls of his lunch, Pal says his family has been running this shop since before Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975. This makes him one of the few in the area who have seen both demonetisations: the current as well as the one in January 1978, when Morarji Desai demonetised currency. “ Humne apni taraf se saari suvidhaa rakhi hai (We’ve done our best to make it convenient for our customers),” Pal says. He points towards the big Paytm logo and the card-swiping machine behind the counter.

Lekin agar funds hi nahi rahenge logon ke paas, toh problem toh hogi hi (But if you don’t have the funds, there’ll obviously be a problem).”

According to Pal’s “conservative estimate”, the market has suffered a 40-50 per cent reduction in business overall. He has a silver lining to offer, though. “This shop has seen politicians and businessmen paying for big orders through briefcases full of cash. Once, the authorities even came to the shop to ask about a customer and his mode of payment. Now, thanks to people paying mostly through card or Paytm, at least I have the assurance that every payment is above board and taxed.”

Pal seems optimistic that his shop will weather the storm. Others, however, are not so sure. At Poddar Cards, a market leader and one of the oldest vendors of its kind in Delhi, we meet the 38-year-old Amit Poddar, currently in charge of day-to-day operations. His family has been in the business since before his birth.

Poddar Cards is the Maserati of the wedding card business, a vendor so visibly high-end that you don’t really need to check the balance sheets. They occupy the entire second floor of a Charkhiwalan Gali building, making them four or maybe five times the size of the street average. The staircase leading up to the shop is lit in soft yellow, and there are little golden Ganesha figurines in glass showcases on your right. Even at a time like this, when there are literally zero customers, Poddar Cards has a dozen salesmen waiting around to show off their wares.

Poddar speaks in the relaxed drawl of Delhi-fied English. His Hindi is more urgent, though. “ Jahaan aap khade ho naa, wahaan paaon rakhne ki jagah nahi hoti December mein (Normally you wouldn’t even find a place to stand here in December),” he says wistfully. Around this time of the year, he says, the shop normally works on 60-70 new orders, to be delivered from December through to February, the peak wedding season. Currently, they have a grand total of two new orders. “People are not spending on luxury items,” he explains. “Our colleagues who are caterers are hit even worse. Earlier, if people were inviting 2,000 people (to a wedding), now they’re making do with just 400-500 guests.”

Would it be fair to call this a slowdown, then? He gives us a defeated little laugh before explaining, “Slowdown is not the right word. This is called ‘closure’. If by March, things don’t improve, we will have no choice but to shut shop. How will I pay my employees otherwise?”

In another part of Chandni Chowk, despair is palpable in the air. Kinari Bazaar has been the heart of Delhi’s tailoring industry since the time of the Mughals, when it was called Shahjahanabad. Situated perpendicular to the famous Dariba Kalan, the bazaar is vital to the wedding market, and is the place where darzis and designers flock for inspiration, new designs and wholesale shopping. The market is intuitive about the colour that will trend at the wedding market, the kind of embroidery people will stock up, the baubles that will jazz up outfits, and the jewellery designs that can be copied in cheaper metal.

‘Kinari’, as the name implies, is a market for borders — woven, embroidered, zari, sequinned, lace... you name it, they have it. It was impossible to access Kinari Bazaar between 11 am and 7 pm on a good day in November-December. Now, shops stay empty at one in the afternoon, and helpers kill time playing cards. The bigger shops at the other end of the market (next to Parathe Wali Gali) still have some business, as their card machines bail them out. Things are quiet at a shop for lace and satin. Another shop selling wares for prayer rituals has no takers, and the owner stares blankly at the largely empty street.

Ashok Jain’s father had opened Jain Zari Palace in the market 54 years ago. There is not a single customer in the shop. Predictably, Jain doesn’t have a card machine.

“After 10 years of having the same bank account, now they want to know more about you,” grumbles Jain, the owner. “Cheques would go back and forth every day, with all the business during wedding season. But this time, there is no activity. Business is down by 90 per cent.”

When we point out that a card machine, might help business, he retorts, “I’d applied for a card machine a month ago. Do bankers have time to install card machines in the middle of this hulla?”

Manu Gupta sits hostilely in front of his shop, as his brother prays to the framed Hanuman tucked onto a protruding ledge on a wall of the shop. Colourful gift packets, festive potlis to be given away as return gifts at weddings, faux- meenakari puja thalis and other knick-knacks stay stacked. “Why would I have a card machine in normal circumstances? Bills do not go beyond ₹1,000-2,000 at my shop. However, post demonetisation, no one wants to spend on secondary expenses, or are simply delaying buying.”

The snaky lane of Kinari Bazaar also has many imitation jewellery stores, some not bigger than a window with two display boards and a storage cupboard, while some others are two-storeyed. I enter one of the latter, and business is brisk. A customer walks up to the billing counter, and is told, ‘If you want the bill, there is 14 per cent VAT extra’. She walks out after purchasing her wares. Cards are being swiped, while the owner counts crisp ₹2,000 notes in a bundle. He declines to comment on the effects of demonetisation upon his business.

At Nayi Sadak, touts are looking to lure customers into their stores. A shop boy pleads with me to enter Ambey Textiles, an empty two-storeyed shop. As I enter, the owner and his younger son, and four shop boys look up expectantly. They insist on showing me wedding lehengas, though I explain I’m not looking for one. “ Dekh lijiye, madam, humaara bhi haath khul jaayega (Look at the lehengas, we will also get some business),” an assistant insists. He brings out box after box of the north Indian Hindu wedding attire in all shades of red, despite my protestations. “We can give them to you at half-price, why don’t you try one of these?,” a shop boy tells me.

The president of Kinari Bazaar Gota Zari Welfare Association rues the situation, “You can see what is going on. If there were 20 customers coming per day, I may get 5-7 now, and they will spend 75 per cent less than they would have under normal circumstances. ”

The wedding trousseau and puja business is not the only one affected by demonetisation. Decorators, a semi-organised sector, are having a tough time in business.

Gunjan Sud, director of the Delhi-based New Variety Decorators, says the effects of demonetisation on the industry will be visible only in the coming months. “We were booked till December and the first half of January, and the advance payment had been made. That has helped us till now. But the wedding season lasts till April, and bookings for that are yet to happen. We expect a drastic fall. Customers have been calling to cancel their functions, or reduce the number of events. If they had booked us for five events, they have cut it to two now, and we have been forced to provide discounts to help them out.” The crisis is worse when it comes to their vendors, who are now working mostly on goodwill. “It’s the same story everywhere, but I feel that we have to bear the brunt more because of the nature of our industry. We need to create complex sets in maximum three days. Now, the labour that works for this industry is cash-strapped, and lives on day-to-day basis. A large section of them has gone home, so we don’t have enough labour. Flower budgets have also been slashed. If the flower budget was, say, ₹6 lakh, it is now down to a lakh.”

Chhatarpur venues, Delhi’s it-destination for weddings, are running helter-skelter to get their clients to pay either new money or in white. “No one has cash, and no one is allowed to take out enough. If you hold an entire industry by the neck like this, how are we supposed to survive? Business will die as soon as it came up,” rues a customer who is at Tivoli Gardens to cancel a wedding booking.

Manish (name changed) has been running a mid-sized family catering business in Delhi for 35 years. “The wedding season used to be the biggest surge in the market for six months — from October to March. This market had surged since 1998, when it became a thing to flaunt your wealth. It is possible now that weddings get cancelled because people are not able to spend on them. The market is shrinking to its realistic size.” He, however, considers this temporary. “Weddings have been cancelled or postponed beyond April, because no one knows what is going to happen after December 31. Also, since a lot of this money used to come from the real estate market — which is on tenterhooks right now — it has directly affected us. People are unwilling to spend. Wedding lists have come down from 1,000 guests to 500 guests, or 700 guests to 350.”

The wedding market is a behemoth, valued at over ₹1,00,000 crore, and growing at a scale of 25-30 per cent annually, according to a report by Business Insider.

An individual in India is expected to spend one-fifth of his wealth accumulated over a lifetime in organising a wedding. It is also what sustains a whole ecosystem of industries, such as high fashion, and a major chunk of the luxury business. Demonetisation has been a great leveller in that sense. But the ones affected the most are those whose livelihoods depend on it.

Published on December 09, 2016
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