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A street in the paper market. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A street in the paper market. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The rusty papery Old city

Paper could save us, we should save paper. A visit to Old Delhi's wholesale paper market gives new meaning to that thought

As the modern world really paperless? Some of us hope we will be able to get there soon and will not have to kill trees, for our own sake—but offices can barely do without printouts on a daily basis. On the other hand, paper is replacing plastic in elite, eco-friendly supermarkets. Thoughts of paper’s relevance, however, are wiped clean from the mind when you travel through Old Delhi’s wholesale paper market.

The streets are littered with paper scraps. The air hums with the drone of paper-cutting machines. Storefronts advertise paper types you might never have heard of: silicone paper, release paper, thermal paper, poly paper, metallized paper, even waste paper.

At first sight, the paper market, with its 2,000 big and small establishments, appears to be a self-sustained ecosystem, functioning in total isolation from the rest of the smart world that says e-readers are better than books. But that’s an illusion. Our new habit of reading digitized novels and sending party invites on Facebook has directly affected this place. The concerns of the traders here aren’t unlike those of the Finnish premier, who had said in 2014 that the arrival of the smart slate had wounded his country’s paper industry.

“We are running India’s biggest wholesale paper market, but our business has gone down by 30% in the past five years," says Gian Prakash Gupta, president of the Paper Merchants’ Association, Delhi. Gupta resents the “increasing tendency to store books in pen drives" and the general perception that paper leads to pollution. “Most (of the) paper you find in this paper market is made of raddi (discarded paper). We are not chopping trees to make paper," says the association’s chief.

Further down the alley is an open urinal, just above which is a hoarding for “non-woven paper bags". The lane leads to a thoroughfare. Walk up to that and you face the western wall of Jama Masjid.

The paper market is in what used to be Delhi’s red-light district. During the Mughal era, Chawri Bazar was home to the celebrated dancing girls Nur Bai, Kali Ganga, Zeenat Behji and Aad Begum—the latter would notoriously appear without her pajamas but with legs painted in elaborate designs. The British moved the red-light area to the nearby GB Road, and Chawri Bazaar evolved into a deliciously chaotic mess of overlapping worlds. It’s a market for building materials and wedding cards. Of course, you might have come here to treat yourself to Delhi’s best bedmi poori (Shyam Sweets), or perhaps to the city’s most marvellously improvised fruit sandwich (Jain Coffee House). Chawri Bazaar is also home to one of the city’s most beautiful Mughal-era mosques—Masjid Rukn-ud-Daula sits atop shops selling aluminium and copper rods.

A shop selling processed paper sheets.
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A shop selling processed paper sheets.

To many visitors who flock to the Walled City, the Chawri Bazaar experience is limited to a quick rickshaw ride from its underground Metro station to the famous Karim’s restaurant in Matia Mahal Bazaar. There’s no way they can see the paper market. Hidden within a mesh of narrow lanes, the market is snuggled in localities with poetic names such as Gali Charkhiwali, Kucha Meer Aashiq and Gali Batashe Wali. The last is a neighbourhood named after an overly sweet candy.

If you did make the effort to find the paper market, you would find a memorable piece of Old Delhi. Besides the paper shops and godowns, there would be the meditative sight of lungi-clad men, quietly and rhythmically working old paper-cutting machines, turning large sheets into manageable rectangles in their hole-in-the-wall workshops that operate next to old buildings. You would watch in rapt concentration until a labourer asked you to move out of the way.

The office of the Paper Merchants’ Association is more posh than one might expect. It’s a beautifully maintained building, with a sprawling courtyard so atmospheric that you might want Khan Market cafés to shift here en masse. The conference hall has a large table, but isn’t big enough to accommodate all the 1,500 members of the association. There were two computers too—must be an alarming sight for a paper trader.

There are also a few other smaller centres of paper trade in the city, in areas such as Kotla Mubarakpur, Green Park, Raja Garden and Shahdara. A decade ago, Chawri Bazaar was set to lose its paper market. In 2006, the association accepted a government offer to leave the congested alleys for faraway Ghazipur in east Delhi, near the Uttar Pradesh border. Six hundred plots were sold by the Delhi Development Authority to the paper merchants. A few did shift their business, but they all returned. “Until now, that place has no power, no sewage system, no security… how can we then run our business?" says Gupta.

As a result, a part of Old Delhi remains strewn with paper. You can actually draw a map of the Walled City, dividing it into regions after their specialized trades. Naya Bazar for foodgrain; Khari Baoli for spices and dry fruits; Chandni Chowk for clothes; Kashmere Gate for motor and auto parts; Dariba Kalan for jewellery; Bhagirath Palace for electrical equipment. In his 1988 book, Local Finance In Metropolitan Cities: A Study Of Delhi, academic Gangadhar Jha ascribed the rise of specialized trades in the city to Partition—“Delhi assumed the role of a major distribution center for north and north-west India because Lahore, the other major trading center then, ceded from India."

Now, as the world gradually breaks its ties with paper, the market’s future is uncertain. At the moment, though, the wheels are turning somewhat smoothly. The supply and demand cycle continues. Paper, arriving from factories in Odisha, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, is processed into different kinds of sheets and sold to stationery makers and publishers. The business supports the livelihood of about 500 migrant labourers who haul the load from trucks to shops daily—at night, they sleep in the lanes.

Muhammed Sabir, a “paper mazdoor", as he describes himself, is sitting outside Raghu Papers. He has been working as a labourer in the paper market for 30 years. “I used to make 20 chakkar (rounds) daily, carrying the load from trucks to shops," he says, “but these days, it is 10, when you are lucky." They get paid Rs10 for every round.

Gupta believes that the market will be there for another two decades—before it makes way for a paperless world.

What will he do then?

“As you must know," he says, “the future is in plastic."

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