228 shops on 114 boats sell vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry and meat. 

In land-scarce Bengal, a rehab project turns Patuli lake into a shopping area

It isn’t yet the Damnoen Saduak floating market of Bangkok and lacks the scenic charm and Himalayan backdrop of Srinagar’s Dal lake, where everything from flowers to exquisite shawls and gemstones are sold on boats. But the city’s first floating market is creating ripples alright.

Located on the Patuli lake in south-east of the city, the market is a rehabilitation project with few parallels.

Bobbing on 114 boats are 228 shops, selling vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry and meat. Also thrown in for good measure are a barber’s shop, bedding stores and shops offering groceries. All the boats are numbered and two vendors share a boat.

 New experience

But the market is yet to find its moorings with both the vendors and customers adapting to the new experience. “How can I buy a fish unless I have inspected its gills and scales for freshness?” complains 68-year-old Chayan Sengupta, who is loath to change his tested buying practices of many decades. Balancing carefully on the ramps and wooden walkways that now criss-cross the lake, he pops his head under the canopy of a boat, scouring for the best greens.

All the vendors in the new floating market earlier used to sell produce on both sides of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass (EMB) — a 15 km long thoroughfare that skirts the eastern fringe of the metropolis. With the vast wetlands on one side and several residential complexes on the other, the EMB is now the focus of several of the city’s development projects including an elevated rail corridor connecting the airport.

“To six-lane a narrow stretch, it was necessary to get land to widen the road and the market had to go.. out of this necessity came the invention,” Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim told The Hindu.

Thus began work to transform a storm-water drainage canal into the city’s first floating market. Workmen from the Bengal’s traditional boat-making hub of Balagarh in Hooghly district were brought in to construct the boats.

 Vector control

Around ₹10 crore was spent by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), to set up the market. According to the local councillor Arup Chakrabaorty, measures have been taken to ensure that the lake does not become a breeding ground for vectors.

“Besides putting up fountains and an aerator, nearly 10,000 fishes that feed on mosquito larvae have been introduced into the lake. The water is also cleaned at regular intervals,” he said.

The market was inaugurated by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee last month. Billboards on the walkways announce that children below six are not allowed and plastic carry bags are a strict no-no.

The shop keepers of the erstwhile Patuli VIP market, though happy to have been rehabilitated, are yet to see a spike in sales. “This is the only large market in this vicinity and we had thought that taken together with the novelty of the project, our sales will increase,” said a vegetable vendor. “We find a lot a visitors, especially in the evenings.. but very few actually buy from us.”

Septuagenarians like Mr Sengupta lament the ecological changes. “When we first came here nearly three decades ago, we used to wake up to the chirp of birds.. no longer,” he said but added that it was the an unavoidable price of progress.

 Copycat projects

The success of the floating market however, has set off other ventures in land-scarce Bengal. A 60,000 square feet mall on pontoons, complete with anchor stores and movie screens is being planned in Hooghly district’s Srirampur, some 30 kms from the city.

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