The sweet spot of Kozhikode city in Kerala is caught in a bitter debate.
The city's historic Mithai Theruvu (literally Sweetmeat Street), now better known as SM Street, is getting a facelift with cobbled streets, accessible toilets and pavements.
The history of SM Street dates back to time of the Zamorin when the ruler invited Gujarati sweetmeat makers to set up shop in the city. It has been the commercial nerve centre of the city for more than a century and was even the star of a classic novel - S K Pottekkatt’s award-winning Oru Theruvinte Katha (1960).
The Kozhikode district administration promises that the renovation will boost the street's heritage status and give shoppers a delightful experience. But the proposal to ban traffic on the street has the local merchants up in arms. Apart from shops, the street also has houses, temples and restaurants.
Can a bustling Indian street be converted to a European-style pedestrian market overnight?
Sunila Goray Raj, a junior partner at The Pacific Stores, which has been located on SM Street since 1937, argues that a ban on vehicles would kill independent businesses on the street.
The clamour to ban vehicular traffic on SM Street has been going on for years now. Over 15 years ago, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the then Minister overseeing the proposal to ‘beautify’ SM Street and turn it into a ‘Heritage Street for Pedestrians’, had invited a few prominent traders of the street for talks.
My father, Madhukar Goray, partner of one of the oldest textile shops there – The Pacific Stores – was one of them. He talked about the impracticality of the situation and how a blanket ban on vehicles entering SM Street would adversely affect business. The Minister was convinced and did not take the matter forward.
But certain sections of the society kept at it, and the present Collector has gone all out to ensure that this comes through. This project is a fool’s errand that will do no good to anyone, and will cause hardships to the dozens of businesses that operate on S M Street.
The heritage of SM Street is that it is a business and commercial area, first and last, and has always had vehicles – whether they are bullock carts or cars or trucks. There is no other heritage – and you cannot manufacture heritage!
These are my objections to the proposed vehicle ban:
Not a flea market: The administration says they want to model SM Street on the lines of famous pedestrian markets in Europe. That is flawed on so many grounds.
Most of the European markets they refer to are ‘flea’ markets with small shops that sell curios and knick knacks. On SM Street, we have shops of all sizes that sell everything from wedding sarees and bed sheets to household appliances, electrical goods and sports equipment. Are people supposed to walk about with heavy packages till they reach the end of the road?
Some compare SM Street to other pedestraian zone markets in India. These are markets that have sprung up close to a heritage place, like Guruvayur or the Golden temple. People primarily come to these places for its heritage or religious significance and may only buy trinkets or souvenirs. They don’t come to the street to shop and they would visit such places irrespective of whether vehicles are allowed or not.
The Corporation has not been able to do a basic function: That of proper collection, disposal and recycling of garbage. Why, then, is taxpayer money being spent on a nonessential project?
The people who want to have a European style pedestrian market are the same who object to financial and tax reforms and digitalization saying that India is not like Europe! Irony much?
Road safety: Will a vehicle ban make the street more convenient and safe for pedestrians? This is one place where no vehicle collisions have been reported for over 50 years. It is indeed one of the safest streets in accident-prone Kerala!
Transport of goods: Getting goods into our stores has already become a major hurdle. Now, Coolies have to bring in parcels on their heads. Not a humane or modern solution by any stretch. Earlier, auto rickshaws brought the goods in.
To sustain ourselves, we have to increase the prices of our products, which will make it on par with prices in big chain shops like Jayalakshmi or malls, and too expensive for the common shopper. The other option is to sell at the same prices and earn smaller profits. Both ways, our revenues will reduce drastically. In fact, we are already feeling the pinch. People say vehicles can be allowed from 10 pm to 7 am for getting goods into stores. This argument is ridiculous! First, the coolies will not stay on after 6 pm. Neither the shop keepers nor the staff is trained to haul in such heavy parcels. And it’s highly unlikely that the coolies we hire would allow them to.
Pedestrian shoppers: Some people argue that people who shop on SM Street don’t use personal vehicles. I challenge these people to provide proof of the same. This is just loose talk.
I have seen customers getting dropped off at our doorstep, and being picked up after they are done shopping. Many regular customers have stopped coming to our shop because they cannot come in their vehicle. Not all shoppers are young and healthy; some are old and disabled too – spare a thought for them!
Short-cuts: Some have argued that many people use the road as a short cut to the station, and that’s why it should be stopped.
For the past year or so, the road to the station has been one-way. This means that one cannot enter the first platform by going through SM Street. Aravind Ghosh Road is far more convenient for that purpose – even those of us who have shops there don’t use it to get to the station, unless it’s early morning or late night. The throngs of people walking on the road make it anything but a short cut during diurnal hours.
Spare a thought for the traders: Shoppers visit the street only once in a while. Spare a thought for the traders who go there daily and probably stop by at home for lunch? Are they supposed to walk through in scorching sun or pouring rain four times a day? Many, like my father, are senior citizens; it will create innumerable problems for them.
Parking: There is talk about the Kidsons building being demolished and turned into a multi-storey parking facility. If this is true, shouldn’t that have been the first step? Make sure that there is ample parking just close to the street, and THEN stop traffic on the road. We don’t know when the parking facility will actually be built. It will likely take years – by then, the businesses on SM Street will be finished.
Fire safety: SM Street is an unplanned road with old wiring and shops very close together. It is prone to fires. What will the administration do in case a fire breaks out and the road is un-motorable?
SM Street is also home to a movie theater, restaurants and a hotel – all of which are heavily dependent on vehicular traffic.
If one of the shopkeepers or employees has a medical emergency, what do you do? Carry the person for 500 meters?
Why should the small trader suffer? People who are demanding the ban on vehicles are occasional visitors. Among those who are actively campaigning against vehicles are people who own stores in malls!
People are requesting the Collector to install benches and hold music concerts on the street – well, Mananchira park is pretty close by and is a great spot for recreational activities.
SM Street is a business place, not somewhere you come to simply relax.
Hear our side: The Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi has been actively campaigning for the vehicle ban. They have steadfastly refused to print the traders’ side, and only published opinions of those who are all for banning vehicles.
The Kozhikode Collector on his Facebook page invited suggestions for the so-called heritage project. But he only responded to those who were asking for the ban and requested seating and music. If you’re not going to consider both sides of the story, why go through the farce of asking for opinions and suggestions?
There are commercial areas in India that are far more crowded: Chikpete in Bangalore, Lakshmi road in Pune, Kalbadevi in Mumbai, Kalasipalayam in Bangalore, Chandni Chowk in Delhi to name but a few – and they all have all sorts of vehicles and pedestrians throughout the day.
If no one seems to have a problem in any of those places, why the clamour here? Makes one wonder if larger moves are afoot, and sinister plans are in place to kill the businesses on SM Street to benefit other large shops or malls elsewhere, or to crash property prices there so that vested interests can buy shops there dirt cheap.
By banning vehicles, you are not going to ‘preserve heritage’, you are seeking to destroy the businesses there.
What is SM Street without its shops? What about our heritage? Many of us are third-generation shop owners. If the shops shut down, what will be the fate of the hundreds of employees who are working there now? Most of them are no longer in the age bracket to find employment in malls or mega stores.
For the sake of some people who live in a fantasy world and visit SM Street infrequently, is the district administration going to put the livelihoods of hundreds at stake?