22 September, 2023


City Of Merchants

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

It was the radical Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, and not the Caesarist Bonaparte, who called England a nation of shopkeepers. Today cities have taken the place of nations: Colombo is “considered” Sri Lanka in much the same way New Delhi is “considered” India.

The capitals of the Global South are fast becoming home to the shopkeepers of the world. The boutique owners, who live and thrive on adding mark-ups to what others have produced, are swamping these capitals, finding base in every street, lane, and road. Though not yet a totally parasitic class, these small time traders have congealed into a rent seeking group of their own, forging alliances with bureaucrats, politicians, and other interest groups. Thanks to their presence, the petty boutique, along with the high-rise apartment, stands as a symbol of and a permanent fixture in the underdeveloped cities of Asia.

In the Colombo Metropolitan Area, shopkeepers cater to a lower middle-class clientele, selling everything from 90 rupee cigarettes to 120 rupee rice packets. Around two million passengers make their way to Colombo every day, mostly to offices. Yet though they are all in the city, they are not of it: they can’t afford to frequent the arcades, shopping malls, and restaurants those of it can. They can only survive the day, not spend it. This is the demand the Colombo shopkeeper responds to, and to his credit, it is one he fulfils.

But in Colombo space is hard to get. It is also quite expensive to have. Squatting is hardly a thing of the past; it happens here, particularly in the afterhours. Encroachment has become a fact of life also; there are people who finish work and, for want of money for a place to stay, swoop on the deserted streets as their bed for the night. This is the Colombo you do not get to hear about, much less read about, even less see for yourself. In the rush for space that so vividly characterises this state of affairs, the ubiquitous shopkeeper tries his best to get and keep his place under the sun: sometimes by fair means, often by foul. It is important that we understand how this has come about, and how it has worked out.

Across much of the underdeveloping Global South, poverty thrives on the growth of cities. Colombo fares much better than do most other capitals, especially in South Asia. Yet having fared better doesn’t mean it’s managed to avoid the more onerous effects of urban sprawl. As Mike Davis has noted in Planet of Slums, mass urbanisation is hardly unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, yet it was in these centuries that it accelerated to unprecedented levels, pushing up the urban populations of the developing world, Sri Lanka included.

Today we are seeing a shift from urbanisation and suburbanisation to peri-urbanisation: the transformation of peripheral villages into Xeroxed facsimiles of cities. While villages turn into towns, the big cities continue to be squeezed of space: as populations rise and developers focus attention on suburbs, more and more people swamp the capital in search of jobs and schools. Soon enough, no town becomes big enough for two to tango.

With urbanisation comes a sprawling network of relationships between various classes and groups, some friendly, others hostile. Development literature, for the most, treats cities of the Global South ambivalently, focusing on how the shift from the rural hinterland to the urban metropolis lifts thousands of millions (billions) out of poverty while limiting to footnotes and endnotes the less savoury aspects of rural-urban migration. NGOS and think-tanks which conduct research into urbanisation do not adequately examine the relationships that crop up between those who come from afar and those who cater to their needs: apartment owners and labour contractors, but also boutique-owners. It goes without saying that all three groups belong, in their essential character, to a merchant class.

Naturally enough, these groups do all they can to monopolise real estate, since they never run out of demand: there’s always someone at their doorstep. In the contest for space this leads to among themselves, laws are infringed and rules are tweaked. Thus bribery, which to advocates of free markets is a result of the state getting bigger, becomes a way of life in the metropolis because business groups, including petty traders and shopkeepers, connive with it to make it weaker: “The famous ‘retreat of the state’,” noted Aijaz Ahamad years ago, “is a retreat, mainly, from the realm of social and welfare entitlements.”

While in pursuit of urban space, shopkeepers develop an ambiguous relationship with the enforcers of the law and the residents of the streets in which they operate. Since land can always be encroached upon and claimed again, the less scrupulous among them develop unholy alliances with local government officials and even police-officers, going as far as to hire thugs to protect what’s theirs. Of course, not all shopkeepers act that way: only the more powerful among them. But the boutique, which crops up every few feet or so in the suburbs, needs to expand. It needs to swoop into adjacent land questionably, even illegally; it needs the full brunt of the law, for it to bend the law to its will.

It’s important to try and find out just whose interests these shopkeepers are serving. In the city, the battle of real estate is between residential homes and luxury apartments. Owners of luxury apartments think in terms of vertical development: building higher and taller. Yet they cannot do without also engaging in horizontal development: expanding into neighbourhoods, pushing residents away to suburbs elsewhere, turning homes into condos without spending much (or while spending the bare minimum) on water and sewage facilities.

In other words, they need to drain adjacent neighbourhoods of their residents, because how else are they going to get a spot for their next condo? With persuasion, offers of big money, and other tactics, they do all they can to drive homeowners away and demolish their quaint little homes. Colombo is home to very few houses of that sort today; they are a dying breed, and the few I have seen will probably make way for high-rise apartments.

The relevance of all this to my piece is that, in certain cases, shopkeepers have unwittingly helped apartment owners drain suburbs of residents. I don’t mean to say that shopkeepers have thrown in their lot with the apartment owners. But by moving into residential spaces, intruding on residential property, and encroaching on residential privacy, they have become a bête noire in the eyes of those living in these streets, compelling some of the latter to even consider leaving home for good. In other words, the boutique serving the lower middle-class is partly contributing to a shift in the suburbs that’s benefitted, if not entrenched, the condos, arcades, and malls, along with the conglomerates which own and run them.

Of course this is not what shopkeepers – even the more powerful ones – aim at. But having moved into a neighbourhood, they refuse to get out. As far as their desire to stay where they are goes, they transform into a parasitic class, growing on lucrative real estate while serving a mostly émigré working class that, in a cruel twist of fate, is finding it more and more difficult to search for temporary shelter from where to commute to work; since 1977, two researchers noted in 2003, “the poorer, informal-sector workers [have] come to rent rooms, hurriedly built extensions and crowded temporary shacks” in peri-urban areas outside Colombo. While the émigré worker gets pushed further and further away, the petty trader does everything he can to stay where he is: right in, if not near, the hub of the city.

An anecdote will help illustrate my point more clearly. Somewhere between Narahenpita and Thimbirigasyaya years ago, a family set up shop selling the usual merchandise. Those living in the lane nearby did not bother much, since it was small. Fast-forward years later when the shop, small no more, is growing horizontally via the pavement and reservation and vertically via dangerous concrete columns, the neighbourhood finds itself engaging in a cold war with the owner. Having contravened every other regulation, the latter threatens residents with the power of influence: the backing of not just government officials, but also religious institutions. This cold war will never end: as residents keep complaining to authorities, he keeps ignoring them, building higher and taller, bigger and wider.

Basically, what we’re seeing here are two conflicts, a major one and a minor one. Colombo’s high-rise apartments are increasingly being filled by an émigré bourgeoisie, while an émigré working class have to go as far as they can from the centre or immediate suburbs in search of decent, affordable lodging. Caught up in the crossfire of this battle of sorts, the residents of suburbs and the boutique owners moving into their vicinity engage in another minor battle to conquer and control space. If the émigré bourgeoisie seem to have won the bigger war with workers, the shopkeepers seem poised to win the smaller war. The one has dovetailed into the other, and in both, the merchant class appears to have claimed victory.

The small shopkeeper, Bela Kun wrote in 1918, was doomed to remain in debt to the great capitalist. Caught between two competing groups – the working and lower middle-class on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other – he ends up serving both, getting entangled in the battle of the one against the other. In Delhi, Dhaka, Mumbai, Lahore, and Colombo, this milieu deploys what firepower it has to retain its position of strength, against not only the lower middle-class it panders to, but also the suburban class it encroaches upon. This is a phenomenon that has been ongoing for a long time, yet it has gained a new resonance in recent times. Trapped between two worlds, today the petty shopkeeper stands on two stools, fearful of losing his position against an ever increasing contest for space.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    So well written. We have every Buddhist gene and precept in us to be totally different from India. And yet, here we are again, following yet another false axiom like the recent one : “…..the shift from the rural hinterland to the urban metropolis lifts thousands of millions (billions) out of poverty.”

    *see also Hema Senanayake’s article on Two Fundamental Flaws in Economic Thinking, on false economic axioms.

    • 1

      I wonder whether Uditha’s tirade against shopkeepers stems from personal experience?
      Still, it is as accurate as it can get.
      “Having contravened every other regulation, the latter threatens residents with the power of influence: the backing of not just government officials, but also religious institutions.” …is an oft-repeated story where I live. Here, the immigrant shopkeepers have banded together and taken over what used to be a laid-back town. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment has given way to a place where beef is banned, only Sinhala Buddhist shops are allowed, and the local mudalali association plus temple control everything. Strangely enough, drugs and liquor are distributed by the same white suited people listening to Bana on Poya days.

      • 0

        I’m nostalgic for those old Sinhala Buddhist Butiks actually (not boutiques). Loved the sound of the temple Bana. Now, that’s the real Motherland! Miss the beef actually, but it’s good that these people can live without beef because of the polluting Methane. Hope your place remains laid-back. Laid-back places have happy people. They don’t contribute to inflation, environmental and cultural pollution. Feel that you are specially blessed.

    • 3

      “We have every Buddhist gene and precept in us to be totally different from India”
      Well, of course Philadelphia is different from India. But it isn’t Buddhist, as far as I know.

      • 0

        The usual quips and snipes…..typical……

        • 0

          “The usual quips and snipes…..typical……”
          Don’t blame me. You’re the one that leaves so many tempting openings.

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