When Delhi’s iconic Palika Bazaar first opened its doors to customers in 1979, it immediately became the talk of the town. And for good reason. It was one of the first air-conditioned, underground markets of India - definitely the first in Delhi - and sold everything from toys, clothes, jewellery, perfumes to electronics. This was an era when India had still not opened its markets to brands from across the world, so if you sought a pair of Levi’s jeans or cassettes of the latest Pink Floyd album, you didn’t have many options anywhere in the country. Palika changed that completely. It was a one-stop destination for all your fancy shopping needs; all you required were elite bargaining skills.

However, that was a different era. Sadly, Palika has fallen from grace. Nevertheless, its air-conditioning remains as popular as ever, providing relief from Delhi's scorching heat.

As one descends the steps of the main entrance to Palika Bazaar, just across the street from the bustling Rajiv Chowk metro station in the heart of New Delhi, what strikes you is how unfazed people are to what is unfolding around them. Palika Bazaar provides a sanctuary for the average Delhiite from the crippling summer heat. Over the past four-plus decades, Palika, fashioned by Sanjay Gandhi himself, has been reduced to a picnic spot, where families pour in to beat the summer heat and bask in the air conditioning to escape from the mundane.

The story of Palika Bazaar and its decline should not be viewed in isolation. Palika Bazaar suffers from a significant geographical handicap that is intrinsically tied to the dwindling fortunes of its business. It is situated within the larger, more accessible and much more appealing Rajiv Chowk (Connaught Place (CP), which underwent a major revamp before the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi). The opening of Rajiv Chowk Station gave a major boost to the commercial fortunes of the shops and restaurants in the area, besides being one of the most attractive real estate spotsfor for offices in the capital.

The advantage that Palika offered in the late ‘70s—good air-conditioning—is something that every store in CP has, each boasting better aesthetics and variety for the shoppers. This accentuates the problem for Palika Bazaar as the very reason customers and tourists thronged its air-conditioned premises has been nullified over the last two decades. Until liberalisation happened in 1991, Palika was the go-to place in Delhi to shop for branded clothes, perfumes, gadgets and fancy electronics. In pre-liberalisation India, Delhi’s markets were not dotted with glitzy showrooms of top brands as they are today. Therefore, if one fancied a pair of Levi’s jeans, or the latest pair of Converse high-tops, Palika was the go-to destination. Not only did you get what you wanted, but more often than not, it was also of decent quality.

Fast forward to today, and the picture is far from rosy; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The reforms of 1991 brought in all the big brands to India, and Delhi was no exception, with many opening glittering showrooms in CP itself. This marked the beginning of the downfall of Palika Bazaar and its fortunes. Quickly, Palika was no longer the go-to destination for a pair of Levi’s jeans or Canon’s latest camera; you could find those directly at the Levi’s store in Connaught Place and the Canon showrooms spread across the city. While they may cost more at these places, quality was assured, something that Palika struggled with by the 1990s.

Even the exorbitant prices at the stores of top brands did not deter many of India’s new aspiring classes, who often saved specifically to afford an original product. As a result, Palika Bazaar is now home almost entirely to small businesses only - whose profits are even smaller. While all of them refrained from discussing profits openly, most of them admitted they were marginal at best.

When approached, the shopkeepers at Palika Bazaar declined to comment. “Association walon se baat karlo sir (talk to the members of the Welfare Association)”, was the standard response.

After a rather long wait at the Palika Bazaar Shopkeepers’ Welfare Association office, located in the centre of the premises, Rajkumar Sharma, Secretary of the Association, and Kamaljit Rai, its vice-president shared their thoughts, “Business here is only going down, and it's been that way for a while now. Our USP of selling quality branded products at cheap rates has effectively been nullified thanks to 1991,” Rai said, hinting at the reforms of 1991 that opened India’s markets to big global players. He added, “it’s not as if we don’t want to reinvent, but it's not as simple as us giving a solution and the rest of the businesses following suit. Everyone has their own ideas.” Sharma also expressed his displeasure with the role e-commerce platforms are playing. “They are of no help to us. They don’t want to partner with our shops since we are small retailers. We are on our own,” he explained.

Most of the founding stores of Palika - ones that were set up at the bazaar’s inauguration in 1979have shut down owing to the dismal business conditions. One such store is Rajiv Book Store, owned by Rajiv Gupta. “About 18 months ago, I had to shut it down. Business is in such dire straits here”, he said with a heavy heart. “I opened a jeans store in the same shop, but it’s not doing too great either. Our fortunes will only go further down, and there seems to be no way up. Footfalls are only falling, and when people do come, it's only for the AC. Nobody shops. Reinvention is a far-fetched idea,” he opined. He is critical of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the way it operates, “They (NDMC) do nothing for us. Even during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic they were collecting rent from us. Even their maintenance of the premises is poor,” he adds. The rent, as it turns out, is a common grievance here. It ranges from ₹11,000 a month that some of the founding shops pay to the ₹1-2 lakhs a month bracket that the newer stalls claim to be paying. Coupled with the meagre earnings, it does make life rough here.

However, another Rajiv, the owner of House of Apparels, a store that's been around for quite some time and sells the latest in men’s and women’s fashion, has a slightly different take. “We must keep in mind that these are hard times for all of us, and as a result, even the purchasing power of the customer has come down in recent times. We cannot force them to buy when they themselves don’t have the money to spend”, he explains. Rajiv further adds, “while 1991 took away one segment of our clientele, it brought in another as well. Not everyone can afford to buy from the big showrooms you see outside. The problem today is that tourism has really declined in recent years.”

The fall in tourist numbers is a concern that a lot of shopkeepers here share. Vikram Singh, an employee at the Lal Behari Tandon, who specialises in making some of the finest chikankari products in the city, is one of them. “Our actual customers are either the old timers, who only visit once in a while, or the tourists, especially foreign tourists. They are fascinated by our hand-stitched products. All these people you see around today have come only for the AC or for sightseeing. So, the dip in tourism numbers is really hitting us” he says.

Over the years, the NDMC, in charge of maintaining the premises, has come under heavy criticism for its active role in the gradual fall from grace of Palika Bazaar. Perhaps some of it is not unwarranted. However, this time around, things seem to have changed for the better. Garbage is not dotting the entire premises and the trash bins are not always overflowing. The washrooms are usable, with functioning taps, and are cleaned regularly. In fact, sanitary workers were toiling away during the early hours of a weekday and seemed to do a thorough job of maintaining the bazaar. “The upkeep is certainly better. Although NDMC is not really of much help otherwise, when it comes to sanitation, they are doing a decent job,” noted a senior member of the Palika Bazaar Shopkeepers’ Welfare Association, requesting anonymity.

This is also reflected in the shift, although marginal at best, in the attitude of the shop owners at Palika Bazaar, vis a vis the NDMC and its operation. Barring a few exceptions, they no longer put all the blame for their struggles on the corporation and its officials, although some of the bitterness lingers. After all, old habits die hard!

NDMC officials stationed inside the bazaar speak on condition of anonymity.  “We do our job perfectly well. We are not responsible for the business that shop owners do. We are responsible for maintaining the premises, electricity, water supply and the like. And as you would’ve seen, all of that is taken care of. In fact, the littering that people talk about is the doing of the shopkeepers themselves”. “Agar koi apne customer se abuse karega, toh koi yahan shopping karne kyu aayega wapas (if one swears at customers, why would they ever want to come back to the shop)?” quickly adds another official, again requesting anonymity.

The old timers, people who’ve grown up in Delhi and have been frequent visitors to Palika, lament at its dismal state today. Harjit Singh, raised in Delhi but now based in Canada observes sadly, “It’s become so shabby now. Pehle toh ghoomne layak hota tha aur day spend kar sakte the, ab itna gir gaya hai standard (earlier it used to be a decent place to hang out and spend the day, but now the standards have really fallen). Not a pleasant experience anymore.”

Another old timer, a woman in her 40s who preferred not to be named, further elaborates on this. “When we were growing up in Delhi, in the pre-liberalisation era, Palika Bazaar was our go-to place to shop, roam around, and basically, chill. This was a time when there were no malls in the city, so an underground market with air-conditioning was quite a novel concept. But as the 90’s rolled by, the economy opened up, and many alternatives sprung up. To add to that, the experience here really started to deteriorate. One could just never be sure of the quality of the products sold too. So, for most people like me, it's just not a place we would visit to chill anymore”, she explains.

The younger lot of visitors - particularly those visiting for the first time - certainly seem to be enjoying their time here, though. “When we told our friends that we are travelling to Delhi, everyone told us Palika Bazaar is a place you absolutely must visit. That is why we are here, and we are not disappointed at all. The variety - where else will you find such variety? What Sarojini is to girls, Palika is for us. It’s a great place”, say an exhilarated Suyash, Jamal and Ashirwad, college students from Madhya Pradesh.

On a different note, perhaps the idea of morality is worth discussing here. Although most visitors do not seem to think much about larger ideals like morality when it comes to shopping, the fact that over the years Palika Bazaar has infamously become a hub for drug dealers, peddlers, and suppliers of pornographic content probably does weigh on the minds of the average shopper.

However, all is not lost. At least that’s what experiences of similar markets across the globe tell us. The famous Paris Flea Market’s revival story is one such tale. All it took was a heady dose of celebrity patronage - case in point, the much-publicised visit by Kendall Jenner in 2017 - and a rising sense of eco-consciousness. Perhaps the same blend may not be the solution to Palika Bazaar’s woes, though a revival is surely possible.

But do the people at Palika want a revival? More importantly, are they willing to work for it? Despite Rai’s claims that efforts are being made, that energy seemed missing. One gets the feeling that everybody - the NDMC, shop owners or customers – believes in the Indian ‘chalta hai’ attitude. No one really desires change. ‘Jaisa hai, chal raha hai’ is the mood inside this market. Perhaps that is what this place does to you. You lose sense of the outside. It’s a sanctuary.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.