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Book Excerpt: From Jaya Jaitly’s ‘Life Among the Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics’

By Jaya Jaitly

I had learned that many government establishments could not give all craftspersons a fair deal. Some needed a space like our traditional haats or shanty markets to engage with customers directly without officials keeping them waiting, or finding fault with quality, price and delayed payments. As my work as a consultant in crafts allowed me time to follow other interests, in the early eighties, I decided to pursue a project to study the possibility of setting up a haat in Delhi, and was advised by Shiromani Sharma, Development Commissioner Handicrafts then, to give it a practical ending. We wanted to hold a weekly bazaar in the premises of Hanuman Mandir, across the road from Gurjari in the NDMC locality. This involved locking horns with the NDMC for a year and a half for permission to use the tehbazari space there that lay vacant except on Tuesdays. Nobody listened. In desperation, in 1985, I finally went to meet Jag Pravesh Chandra, an elderly gentleman who was then Chief Executive Counsellor of Delhi.

Chandra had a habit of giving appointments to visitors at 8 am while he was in bed in his pyjamas, still sipping his morning tea. I was the only woman there in a room full of Congress activists. Half-way through my impassioned appeal to him, he raised a finger to stop me. The tea was doing its job. He got out of bed, went to the toilet behind the curtain and, in everyone’s hearing, loudly proceeded to unburden his bowels. His audience pretended not to hear anything. When he returned, I hastily concluded my final sentences and dashed out of his house almost in tears with embarrassment. This was a first in my hitherto pretty elitist life. Despite this eccentricity, Chandra was helpful and we were officially permitted to use the space. I invited him to celebrate the first year of our little haat at Hanuman Mandir, which he very graciously did.

My ‘Dastkari Haat Samiti’, a national association of craftspersons, was formed and registered in March 1986. Hanuman Mandir saw us through interesting times on the pavement every Saturday. There were bomb blasts and bus strikes, and our secretary, a tailor, had a stroke while sitting at the haat and died soon after. The NDMC confiscated the tea seller’s cart because it wasn’t something for which permission had been given. The penalty to have it returned was two thousand rupees. They also refused to beautify the place, not allowing a tea stall, or even a small stage where street theatre could be performed. They argued that if the place improved, rich commercial bodies would want it. In effect, we had better wallow in a mess amidst drug addicts, laddoos surrounded by flies, and no tea stall if we wanted to remain there paying five rupees per stall as rent. However, our organization grew, with monthly meetings held on the pavement, democratic decision-making processes formulated and a membership of ninety craftspersons from Delhi. Those who earned four rupees supplying dolls to a retailer, now earned twenty-five rupees selling them directly at the Dastkari Haat. That was the basic idea behind the market. We eventually learned that we needed storage space, a longer occupancy and definitely food stalls to attract customers. The concept of Dilli Haat was slowly evolving.

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Since Gurjari’s time for serving craftspersons faithfully seemed to be over, the concept of a marketplace exclusively for them became the obvious answer to the need for sustaining their livelihoods. I took the idea to officials in the Delhi government for a couple of years but it proved to be too difficult for them to understand. The explosion of militancy in Kashmir in early 1990 triggered its initiation. I sought an appointment with the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh and provided the concept on paper to set up a permanent marketplace for craftspersons. ‘Good idea. Do immediately’, he wrote on file and passed it on to his Principal Secretary who called a meeting inviting various officials to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). S. Regunathan, Chairman, Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation (DTTDC), took up the project with funds from the Ministry of Textiles with the late Ajai Shankar. It also had dogged support from one Mr Hakim, Joint Secretary in the PMO, who pushed it whenever it stalled, which is what happened when the project was to come up behind the Purana Qila opposite the Crafts Museum in a small triangular park adjoining Bhairon Mandir. These officials were from that remarkable breed who were positive, altruistic and cooperated with great willingness considering I had no political standing. In the midst of the planning, however, V.P. Singh’s government fell and Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister.

Behind the scenes, some people felt threatened and used their supposed proximity to Maneka Gandhi to cancel the allotment of this location, claiming it would disturb the animals in the zoo. As we went back to the drawing board, another civil servant, Ramesh Chandra, the officially designated Administrator of the NDMC, telephoned me with a unique solution. He had discovered a law common to Chandigarh and Delhi that allowed municipalities the ownership of the space over sewers. Sarojini Nagar had a wide storm water drain running through it. He proposed to cover it with a thick slab of cement and soil and offer it for my project. I had never met him but he claimed he had seen my efforts from a distance. Nothing went too smoothly but that will be part of an exclusive book on Dilli Haat which I am waiting for someone to write for me. I had to call an urgent meeting of our organization to propose the simple name ‘Dilli Haat’ to avert the danger of Delhi Tourism christening it as ‘Shilp-Ahar’ as an incorrect translation of Food and Crafts Bazaar.

I asked Ashok Gehlot, the then Union Minister of State for Textiles, to lay the foundation stone for Dilli Haat in May 1992, and I was asked to set up a tiny bazaar on short notice for the event. He not only agreed, but actually came in early. Later, for its inauguration on 28 March 1994, no one had to ‘put in a word’ throughout. Only George Fernandes had to request Madan Lal Khurana, then chief minister of Delhi, to meet me when I had to bring to his notice that Dilli Haat had been ready for four months and was waiting to be inaugurated. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the leader of the Opposition, so Khurana preferred to defer the honours of inaugurating the marketplace to his senior leader. On inaugural day, George Fernandes, then Janata Dal MP, and I, sat casually in the audience while ministers and officials from the concerned agencies occupied the elevated stage. Craftspersons had been persuaded to occupy the stalls. Vajpayee gave a typically playful speech in which he warned everyone that while ‘crafts’ were good, no one should become ‘crafty’. My first twenty of twenty-four artistic maps documenting the crafts of India was released by G. Venkat Swamy, the then Union Minister of State for Textiles. As a fellow trade unionist, he spotted George Sahib in the audience and called him to join them on stage. After six years of sheer perseverance, I enjoyed my moment of accomplishment quietly from below.

After the function ended, I received a call from Venkat Swamy’s office. He came on the line to express his dismay about the fact that the BJP and Delhi Tourism officials had been very thoughtless not to acknowledge my role in setting up Dilli Haat, or refer to me at all. I mumbled saying it did not matter, although it was true. Subsequently, he put me on the All India Handicrafts and Handloom Board, which, typically, never met at all during his period in office.

Interestingly, the entire set of fellow craft aficionados who still decorate Delhi’s drawing rooms and sit on advisory boards to give expert opinions on policies for this sector, watched from a distance without offering to join my efforts in setting up the Haat. Some family members did not visit till the Haat became famous. I think both did not want to be involved in my ‘politics’, as they saw it.

I also felt that socialist leaders like Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar—who claimed to care for the backward classes, tribals, minorities and other underprivileged sections (craftspersons comprise 94 per cent of these communities)—could have taken more ownership of it as a major achievement of a party colleague. It never struck them to acknowledge, even informally, that a woman with no position or power could set up this infrastructure that brought about the economic revival of thousands of craftspersons. However, their personal staff never failed to recommend and quite often at that, some undeserving trader to me who wanted a stall. I wonder why they were stuck in the Mandal mode of quotas. I wish they had considered creative work to be politically worthwhile.

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In ten years, Dilli Haat became popular, both nationally and internationally. Lonely Planet and other guide books advised travellers to visit it. At one stage, impoverished Russians came in droves to buy inexpensive crafts, taking them back in gunny bags to sell in Moscow. It won awards and became a win-win for Delhi Tourism, the craftspersons and customers. I had devised concepts for regulations to ensure allocations and rents were fair. Regular meetings to monitor, evaluate and improve the complex were held between Delhi Tourism, Development Commissioners of Handicrafts and Handlooms, NDMC, Pradeep Sachdeva, my friend and architect of Dilli Haat, and me, as its founder and representing the Samiti and thus the craftspersons’ voice. This lasted till a seniority issue between the managing director of Delhi Tourism and the handicrafts office ended in such meetings being abandoned. Success bred greed and corruption. Stalls were added and removed indiscriminately and at will by the Delhi Tourism without a heed to proper usage of space or a sense of aesthetics. Traders posing as craftspersons bribed, fought, used influence and manoeuvred through various dishonest means to remain as occupants of their stalls. In this manner, they managed to sabotage the concept of a fortnightly rotation of genuine craft practitioners.

Today, the banners outside may announce a bazaar highlighting a particular agency or state, but the sellers inside are largely the same faces. Five years of letters, meetings, videos, photographs and protests have not succeeded in creating a system free of corruption. In fact, it seems to be getting worse because of the collusion between traders and officials…

Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications from the book Life Among Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics by Jaya Jaitly.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Digital Archiving in the 21st Century’, edited by Md Intaj Ali, PhD Research Scholar, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.

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