Sleep And Night Time Economy In A Street Vendor Neighbourhood

What are the peculiarities of sleep and rest in the life of a female street vendor who works in a market that opens before dawn? Can alternate ideas of urban planning help reimagine her life, ease her anxieties? We return to Delhi’s Raghubir N

At night, when the world is still sleeping, Raghubir Nagar wakes up. Tiny bulbs light up every window, and together, the neighbourhood begins to buzz. Rickshaws begin to ply, and the sound of chatter grows. 

Women hawkers leave their homes with gathris (bundles) perched on their heads and start walking towards the Ghode Wali Mandi, where they will sell second-hand clothes till around 11 am. But this is not their first night-time visit to the mandi. Around midnight they have to come here to “reserve” their spot by spreading a bedsheet on it and then rush home to snatch some sleep. On days when the women can’t “reserve” a spot, they cannot conduct any sales.

Sangeeta ben is alert as she walks to the market in the dark, at around 4am. Crime is common in the area and in the absence of state support, only personal vigilance ensures safety. But this anxiety, she says, is nothing compared to the sleepless nights she and her family spent during the lockdown wondering how they would survive. All the alleyways in Raghubir Nagar had turned into disorganised street markets, with everyone selling whatever they could. 

Raghubir Nagar has still not fully woken up from the impact of the lockdown. Business is somewhat back to normal, but sleep is still a luxury for women like Sangeeta ben. They get to rest for 2-4 hours a day, and this deprivation impacts their mental and physical health.

In a four-part series, we have been documenting the daily struggles of the women hawkers who run Asia’s largest second-hand clothes market in west Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar area. We reported on the unique nature and history of this mandi, the women’s struggle to keep their workspaces intact and the daily violence in their lives, and the interlinkage between leisure and safety of places of faith. In this, the last part of the series, we look at the long hours of work and the unsupported nature of their work that do not allow the women rest or sleep and how this can be changed with progressive urban planning.

The Walk To Road No. 28

Fostering a vibrant night-time economy injects post-sundown energy into a city’s life. It promotes inclusivity, making the city more gender-inclusive and universally accessible. It can also promote the adaptive reuse of spaces that would otherwise remain dormant during the night to maximise the city’s resources. But in Raghubir Nagar, the business at the mandi is run with no State support or safety nets for the women.

When Sona ben hears a vehicle approaching at night as she walks to Road No 28 that lines the gullies, she quickly hides till it passes. This fear and anxiety are a part of her daily walk to the mandi every single day.

All the women hawkers complain of this insecurity. “We leave our homes at 2 am to walk to the mandi. It’s unsafe. The street lights are broken. We feel scared. At times, cars driving past have pulled women in and sped away. We leave home taking God’s name—who knows if we’ll return home,” says Sangeeta Ben.

Sleep is a luxury in the neighbourhood of Raghubir Nagar. When asked about this, Sona ben reminds us that this is their “way of life”, they have never known another.

The city’s authorities have barely responded to the women’s fight for a permanent vending spot or reasonable hours of vending. The extra few hours of sleep that a more structured operation would allow is a long-standing aspiration. The women we interviewed complained of being perpetually exhausted by their day’s routine – a relentless cycle of domestic work, pheri work in colonies and hawking at the mandi.

Regularising the night-time economy in this area can create conditions for women to work fearlessly. This is a community whose practice is rooted deeply in their neighbourhood – for instance, public spaces in the area facilitate different stages of the cloth washing-drying-sorting process. If this business can be regularised, it can integrate an already established practice into the modern definition of what a city’s night-time should look like. 

Night markets that bring buyers and sellers together in unusual spaces commonly pop up in public spaces and dissolve by the light of day. Opposed to the orderly vision of the city, these differential spaces not only embrace heterogeneity but also point out the importance of diversity. Since they grow organically from the collective effort of citizens, resident committees, vendor groups, and the like, they shape up without set guidelines or control by any higher authority. Night markets, thus, can be seen as a grassroots effort in reclaiming city spaces even for a few hours.

The Global South’s cities are vibrant, multicultural streets with a thriving food culture. In the larger cities of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, the streets are active 24X7 with a steady supply of ready-to-eat, affordable and diverse food and other shopping options. Locals love sitting on the pavement while enjoying a piping-hot soup or meal. The act of wandering aimlessly around the town at night is an easily available option, with zero restrictions or hesitation. Suddenly the densities do not look daunting, and the function of eyes-on-the-street is truly a safety feature. This vibrancy results from planning norms that have demarcated and legitimised night markets across the city, which have, over the years, been known to become active tourist hubs and enabled numerous livelihoods. 

Night markets in Thailand and Vietnam (Image source: Peter Lam)
Durga Puja week at CR Park, Delhi. (Image Credits:RLDA Research)

The food markets in Vietnam and the craft markets in Thailand and Cambodia run with the help of local authorities and the State. The night market pop-ups during festivals, like the one in CR Park during Durga Puja, is an example rooted in India. The police manage traffic during the 10 days of the festival, and street space is designated for stalls selling food, clothes, handicrafts and other items. While this is not a permanent fixture in the city, it gives us an example of what night markets can do. They can open up access to the city in a whole new way, add to leisure in after-work hours for those who work during the day, and help women and other bodies reclaim streets safely.

Reimagining Delhi’s Night-Time Economy

The city is a living, breathing organism that functions through the day as well as the night. While its inhabitants are asleep, its systems and infrastructure continue to work formally and informally. These layers of formality and informality complement a city’s smooth functioning throughout the day and facilitate livelihoods. 

Vendor groups are not the only salient features of the night, there are also waste pickers, auto-rickshaw drivers, bus/cab drivers, restaurant staff, and security guards who work and sacrifice night sleep for work. Why not provide infrastructure and services to them at equal capacities?

For Delhi’s night-time economy to be an attractive and inclusive livelihood opportunity, we need to provide night-time infrastructure such as designated spots for night vending, ample street lighting, and proximity to Multi Utility Zones (MUZs). 

Supporting the growth of the informal sector is one of the key focus areas of the draft Master Plan of Delhi 2041. For this, it envisions bolstering the city’s nightlife by including promoting a multi-modal night-time economy (NTE) that provides “alternative time and space for continuing work and production in the city and the areas that remain open for cultural activity and entertainment to attract tourists and locals at night time”.

However, the Plan falls short of laying a roadmap for developing its night economy. If the idea is brought to fruition, a thriving night economy can address an untapped consumer market that is typically unable to engage during daytime resulting in significant economic growth. It can also generate jobs in the face of high unemployment rates, especially in the post-Covid scenario. 

According to recent calculations, Delhi’s night economy should constitute a similar proportion of its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) as it did in the fiscal year 2021-22 – Rs. 9,23,967 crore. An additional Rs. 55,000-80,000 crore could potentially be injected into its GSDP

But the proposal fails to specify any steps. This lack of clarity runs the risk of transforming self-sustaining citizen-led initiatives and self-organised work into a top-down process where decision-making power is redirected to a few individuals. The transient, informal economy of Ghode Waali Mandi can be threatened by rigid regularisation guidelines, disrupting its inherent inclusivity. So it needs to be a collaborative process for the night time economy to be innovative and flexible.

During our engagement with the women informal workers of Raghubir Nagar, we realised the value of tapping into community knowledge. The women re-imagined certain places in the neighbourhood and, in the process, came up with suggestions tackling specific local issues that an outsider would probably not know, or take a long time to figure out.

What The Women Want

Usha ben – a former cloth vendor and long-time resident of Raghubir Nagar – listed some solutions to transform the mandi into a place where vendors would no longer have to reserve vending spots for themselves every night. Instead, they would be allotted pre-designed 8 x 10 feet spots, equipped with cemented storage units to load extra clothes which they currently heavy-lift to and from the market daily.

Usha ben’s prototype design for a vending stall in Raghubir Nagar’s second-hand cloth market

The street outside this reimagined mandi would be well-lit and safe for women to walk at night. The market would have multiple washrooms, dustbins and safai karamchaaris stationed outside to maintain cleanliness in the area. It shall also include pyaaus (drinking water stations), seating for visitors, CCTV cameras to prevent or solve cases of theft, and clinics at 2-3 locations within the mandi. Lastly, Usha ben wishes the market would be allowed to operate from dawn to dusk.

Using the voices of the women of Raghubir Nagar, we have devised a Public Space Inventory framework that collates our insights on planning and governing for informality and accounting for hyper-local, socio-spatial issues. This could inform policy recommendations, planning priorities, governance responsibilities and citizen-led action across individuals, neighbourhoods and cities.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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