Lessons from the Past 97: The Moving Bazaar
There is so much news about the progress of the Indian Railways. The new fast train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, with Japanese technology, will create a new standard for rail travel in India. As one reads about all these excellent developments, I think about the old days when I travelled by train on holidays with the family and later on, to work, as a salesman for Glaxo, covering small towns which I had never been aware of earlier.
 
These developments tempt me to share my thoughts about something about a train in India—something that cannot be replicated in most parts of the world. It is not that it is the second-longest train track in the world. Or, that it carries the population of Australia every month. Or, that it is the single largest employer in the world, employing (1.5 million?) people. Or, that over 50% of the employees of the Indian government are those working for the Railways. It is also true that many trains are dirty, crowded and with a fairly large-sized population of ticketless travellers.
 
But, what makes an Indian Railways (IR) train unique is that it is a ‘moving bazaar’, where many things are available except consumer durables and large-sized items. What makes it unique is that a not negligible number make the moving bazaar, a permanent workplace, sometimes a place of residence, and a place for recreation!
 
I studied this phenomenon about 20 years ago—looking at the short-run suburban trains in Mumbai. The Central Railway carried 1.3mn (million) passengers a day; the Western Railway carried 1.2mn. Twenty-five percent of Mumbai’s population moves up and down, from north to south and then to north again, every day. They take the train at peak hours from Churchgate to Bandra, every day. One has to stand ramrod straight, with one hand on the handle above and another across the purse in your hip pocket. There is no place to move. In fact, even a slight chest expansion that accompanies breathing may be difficult. When you reach Bandra, you cannot get out. The entry is blocked by other passengers. You should have begun moving towards the exit halfway through the journey—and if you did not, you are already too late! It is like selling techniques, where one of the important rules is ‘Always be closing’—at the beginning of the interview, in the middle, at the end. So, I had to go to the train terminus at Andheri and again fight my way back to Bandra!
 
But even in a crowded train like this, the beggar makes his way, singing loudly into already irritated ears. There is also another blind beggar woman accompanied by her little son, who looks at you mournfully, and tugs at your shirt sleeve. There is yet another woman who moves around with a skinny babe in her arms, desperately trying to elicit sympathy and generate a few coins. They all manage to move around, among the crowd, from one end of the train to another—like lubricating oil flowing through every available nook and crevice, finding its way silently through serpentine channels with every little gap, that is unseen by the untrained eye. 
 
Take the Charminar Express to Hyderabad—a long-distance superfast train that stops at an increasing number of stations every six months, converting it from superfast to just fast! There are hawkers on the train who sell aerated water, tea and coffee; biscuits and sweets; vadas and samosa; channa with onions; hairpins and combs; inflatable pillows and hand towels; plastic toys and plastic water bottles; film magazines and daily newspapers. There are services being offered of cleaning the compartment (they are independent operators) and shining shoes. And all the time, through these years, these beggars and hawkers are also climbing their own ‘promotion ladder‘.
 
There is the hunchback. He has been with the Charminar Express since its inception. He started as a beggar, playing on the sympathy of passengers for his physical disability. His target audience was the Gulf crowd visiting home. They gave handsomely—and he made a good living. But, after four years, he decided to graduate to selling services, rather than earning through begging. So he became a shoe shine, focusing primarily on shoes, but also encompassing the chappal market which is larger. And he did well for another four years, until he found the profitability in hawking goods was higher. So he shifted to selling channa masala which he did successfully—and continues to do so.
 
The hunchback is not the only one. There is the boy with a limp and there is the albino with a once-white handkerchief tied around his head. The albino started out as a compartment cleaning man, then moved into shoe shining and later still, to hawking plastic toys and water bottles. And there are probably others like him, all finding their vocations in the ‘moving bazaar’, where a drama goes on and a ladder of progression has evolved and is followed.
 
There are many who do not approve of trains being converted into bazaars. And so the authorities in Eastern India began a campaign to eliminate hawkers from trains. They did. And there was peace for the passengers for about two months. The Railway Hawkers Association agitated. The president was an MP. He used his influence and power with the railway authorities. He claimed that hawkers had a right to pursue their profession, irrespective of the location. It was political expediency. The agitation spread. The final nail in the coffin was the comment of the collector of the town – that the crime rate had gone up since the time hawkers were prevented from operating on the railways. A strange connection! But it shows how many factors influence the creation and perpetuation of the ‘moving bazaar’. Hawkers were once again allowed to operate, or at least a Nelson’s eye was turned towards them. And so the ‘bazaar on wheels’ moves on!
 
This material is taken from unpublished material written many years ago.
 
 (Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are ‘Marketing in a Digital/Data World’ with Brian Almeida and ‘Customer Value Starvation Can Kill’ with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India)
Comments
mendonsavivek
2 weeks ago
Rightly put by Management Guru Shri Walter Vieira , there are two countries within India namely Bharat ( in the villages ) and India in the 450 cities of India ,the long distance Railway Lines are connecting the metro cities to hinter land . Licensed Hawkers are there in European trains but don't make any din or noise
alokdube60
2 weeks ago
Even buses used to have these bazaars albeit the sellers had to leave the bus before departure.
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