Addressing the "Haat-i" In the Room
By Diya Mahesh, UG '25
The multicolour crosshatched lengths of fabric over the atrium usually mean one thing: the haats are back. In the last year, I’ve seen around six haats, some connected to events around campus, and some organised by the admin. I love haat day — the rush of serotonin I feel when I hear the familiar PayTM jingle is unparalleled, and do not get me started on the joy I experience when my arms are full of newly purchased knick-knacks, cello-taping crisp posters and art on the walls of my room, and putting my hair up in a messy bun with the cute little scrunchy I overpaid for. The haats are extremely intertwined with Ashokan culture, with pictures and videos of past haats proudly plastered on the website and all over the university’s YouTube channel. Having begun as a way to bring local Haryanvi life into Ashoka, the first few haats on campus featured local artisans, selling traditional handiwork. Over time this culture has shifted, with the haats focusing on and fostering student-led businesses, and encouraging entrepreneurship within the Ashokan community.
Haats and Mandis have been an integral part of Indian culture forever, with some haats in Northern India dating back to the Mughal Empire. Haats encourage entrepreneurship, providing a space for local artisans to showcase their work and skill, especially those belonging to places that lack proper marketing facilities. They have historically incentivized members of the rural Indian community to diversify from agricultural work and continue the long-held artistic traditions of their communities. Functioning as meeting places, they encourage rural settlements around them, thus aiding in growing small towns in remote areas. More interestingly, the Government of India also organises cross-border haats, popularly with the Government of Bangladesh. The bi-lateral haat on the border helps maintain an image of healthy international relations, serving as a location for both locals and tourists to purchase daily commodities and handicrafts, and often allowing families separated by the border to meet every once in while.
On the other hand, the concept of an Urban Haat has been proliferating around India, with Dilli Haat being perhaps its most famous example. Urban Haats aim to recreate the rural atmosphere and aesthetics of a Haat within an urban space. With thatched roofs, colourful flags and other distinguishing features, these haats tend to be permanent. Urban Haats were first introduced by state governments to boost tourism in specific states, but also aimed to eliminate the middleman from transactions that disadvantaged artisans.
But what happens when the alleged elimination of a middleman gives way to corporatization, as seems inevitable of any successful endeavours entering urban spaces? Many corporations have been pushing the boundaries of urban haats, romanticising their aesthetics without acknowledging, or actively excluding, their historical or cultural significance. Organisations in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi use the idea of fleas and haats to create something similar only in name: charging exorbitant entry rates in exchange for counters of established brands, these may be enjoyed only by the uber-wealthy. Dilli Haat, for example, typically sells merchandise at higher prices than other markets such as Janpath or Sarojini. As soon as priority is given to the profits of a third party that is involved in (and doesn’t particularly care about) the creation of the goods sold or the people who make them, the basic tenets that haats came into existence to fulfil are lost. The infiltration of corporations into haat culture is intensifying at unprecedented rates. Brands such as Nestle and Cadbury encourage business owners in small towns to sell their products, and impose several of their own marketing gimmicks. For example, Nestle once replaced all the tarp covers in a local haat with branded umbrellas, persuading people to buy their products. The Haats thus become showrooms for such corporations, harming the livelihoods of many locals whose daily bread and butter depend on the weekly haats and their success.
What this shift in the paradigm of haats emphasises is that the age of mass gentrification and privatisation is upon us. The commercialisation of traditional haats leads to the inherent exclusion of low-income individuals and marginalised communities, who should be the group that benefits from these systems. Haats in Ashoka claimed to be aiding the reach of local artisans, but have eventually come to support and centre initiatives by students from within the bounds of this private university. Gentrification, especially at such a basic level, attacks culture by disrupting tradition and familiarity, creating a space that distorts and disorients. As much as it might have intended to help small businesses by increasing their consumer base in urban areas, assimilating them into these spaces only strengthens their entry into the expanse of corporate life, a life that fundamentally goes against the central idea of haats.