As tourists throng the Attari-Wagah border to watch the Beating Retreat ceremony daily, a thriving ‘parade economy’ sustains thousands of people, providing them employment in micro businesses ranging from food stalls and selling patriotic paraphernalia such as music and video CDs of the parade, to bigger operations such as bus and taxi services and parking contracts. For many, investing a few hours means earning additional income.
For tourists overwhelmed with patriotic fervor, the Attari-Wagah Joint Checkpost on the Indo-Pak border is the final frontier. And with each thumping down of the hobnailed boots of the border guards, each ‘arrogant’ gesture of adjusting the turbans and each defiant stare filled with ‘faux’ anger across the thick white line dividing the two nations, it is full paisa vasool for the thousands of visitors from all over India who throng the border each evening.
Paisa vasool it is also for the owners, workers, vendors of the shops, shacks and temporary roadside stalls that spring to life each evening and generate an economy sustained by the macho display a few hundred yards down the road.
This economy now sustains several thousand people, providing them employment in micro businesses ranging from food stalls, selling knick knacks, patriotic paraphernalia such as CDs of music and videos of the parade to bigger operations such as bus and taxi services to bring people here and parking contracts.
The numbers of tourists who visit each day vary but at least 10,000-15,000 visit each day, with the number peaking on weekends and other holidays. On a weekend during school holidays, the number of visitors has been known to climb upwards of 40,000 and correspondingly the daily takings.
65-year-old Pritam Singh has been trying his best to be as loud as possible at his age to sell bright little bags for Rs 50 and Rs 100 to tourists returning after watching the beating retreat ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border. He lives in Chheharta locality of Amritsar city and owns a shop there. He, however, invests around four hours every evening at his rented shop at the border, which is also the last shop in India before entering into Pakistan via Attari-Wagah.
Sample the items for sale at this ‘mini-haat’ on the border-Punjabi suits, saris, kurta pajamas, shawls, dupattas, T-shirts, lowers, undergarments, shoes, Punjabi Jutti — all reasonably priced to attract the clientele which visits the parade. Toy battle tanks, fighter jets and guns are displayed for children at several shops. There are also some general gift shops and cosmetic shops. Fast food joints, nothing more than a temporary stand with a gas stove and an LPG cylinder, also lure tourists with their fare, which includes mineral water bottles and cold drinks.
“Price tag is important. We have to do a quick deal as the flow of tourists lasts for less than an hour daily. You don’t have time to return change. So you keep the price fixed at Rs 50 or Rs 100. Again, there are low possibility of selling anything more than 100 because most our target crowd is middle-class and lower middle-class. Rich tourists mostly have passes for VIP parking near the viewers gallery and, otherwise too, they are not interested in our cheap items,” says Pritam Singh who has been running the shop for
Lucky and his friend from the nearby village of Attari do brisk business each evening, selling CDs of the retreat ceremony and assorted items such as flags, caps, wrist bands, Tricolour and painting the national flag on the faces of their customers. “We manage to earn around Rs 350 daily on an average after deducting all expenses,” says Lucky who argues that this is much a better way to earn such wages in a couple of hours’ time than spending time doing some back-breaking work the entire day. The CD sells for Rs 60 apiece, the cap for Rs 50, Band costs Rs 10, plastic flag is for Rs 10 too, thus everything priced at a nominal rate with the focus being on volume. “Tourists from Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and so on are the ones who spend the most. Those from UP, Bihar do not buy CDs from us They say they do not get enough electricity so what will they do with a CD,” says Lucky with a laugh.
Lucky also reveals that 100-150 school children of various ages descend on the Attari-Wagah border each evening after school hours to ply their trade of knick-knacks and go home with a tidy sum in their pockets. “Half the Attari village works here for a few hours each evening. And it is a much better and constructive way to spend the time rather then get involved in illegal activities or doing drugs,” says Lucky who adds that he is now thinking of diversifying his product range to include T-shirts
Jarnail Singh from Mode Village, near the border, sells a cup of tea for Rs 10 at his makeshift stall while his wife sells chips and mineral water. “Changa timepass ho jaanda roz,” (Nice way to pass time each day) he says with a smile that says he is happy making some decent money.
“Most of my products are of interest to women and children. Women love to buy garments and children cannot resist buying toys. We bring the garments from Ludhiana, mostly,” says Lakhwinder Singh, who belongs to Attari.
There is no formal study yet of what the ‘parade’ economy is worth, but it is safe to say that tens of thousands of rupees change hands daily.
The market stretches for around 250 metres, starting from Integrated Check Post and ending at the first BSF checkpost to frisk tourists. The market and the car parking have been moved away from the border since a car managed to breach the security layers and crashed into the gates on the Zero Line a few months ago.
The suicide attack in December 2014 on the Pakistani side of the border also resulted in stricter security norms on the Indian side.
The shopkeepers and vendors live under the continuous fear of any adverse directives from intelligence agencies and the BSF.
The BSF also runs shops that offer various items for the tourists but these are located near the visitor’s gallery and are much better organised than the ones on the roadside.
Using the vacant land for car parking and giving it on rent to the vendors is a lucrative business for the landowners along the road. Balraj Singh Pehelwan has converted a portion of his land into parking space and charges Rs 30 for each vehicle. Others make money by running lockers and stores for keeping purses and hand bags of tourists in safe custody as the BSF does not allow tourists to carry their bags to the gallery.
“All the shops run at the mercy of BSF. Even a minor amendment in the traffic flow by BSF can affect our business. Our shops are on the left side of the road and sometimes, the BSF diverts traffic on the right side of road which affects our business. It is routine for us to go to BSF officials with requests regarding managing traffic of tourists so that our business is not hit,” said a shopkeeper who did not wish to be named.