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'For the garland sellers life still hasn't blossomed'

Feb 03, 2010

Stories of daily struggles of flower sellers are quickly nipped in the bud in the rush that descends on the market, writes Rinky Sharma. Accounts of some of the women flower sellers in India’s national capital highlight their hardship, poor sanitation and a gender-unfriendly market.

New Delhi: The waft of the early morning scent lingers heavy in the air but even with a name like hers, which conjures up images of delicate flowers, Phoolwati, 45, has no time to take in the fragrance of the winter roses, silky tulips and slender gladioli that lie in bundles all around her.

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Perched cross-legged on her wooden shelf-like stall, Phoolwati eyes potential customers while her hands are in a hectic race to quickly string marigolds and folded leaves of the Ashok tree into at least a 100 garlands in a day.

Up much before the sun's rays can caress the Mehrauli flower market, Phoolwati - one of the two independent women flower sellers in this flower market that lies in the shadow of Delhi's Qutub Minar - has opened her stall. Around 4 am, she starts the preparations to sell her saffron-hued wares that will adorn an sacred idol, decorate a welcoming front door, grace a chief guest or garland the memory of a departed loved one.

A mother of three, Phoolwati has been the sole breadwinner of her family ever since her husband fell critically ill soon after the marriage. While selling flowers may appear to be a rosy profession, the flower market is not gender-friendly in terms of sanitation or working facilities, states Phoolwati, who leaves behind at home her bed-ridden husband and a child with special needs when she steps out to work every day.

The other woman flower seller a little ahead into the market is Soni, 32, a widow and mother of three. Soni took up the flower trade after her husband passed away. As independent flower-sellers, Phoolwati employs two other women and Soni has around five to six working for her.

While both women have common problems of commerce, such as having to grease the palm of a greedy policeman, Soni does not have to worry about the home as her daughter looks after the kitchen. Yet, she is concerned about the prospects of her business - wishing she could sell cut flowers, which she feels requires the skills of talking to "bade-bade aadmi" or the affluent people. She is also concerned about countering the lean days - usually Delhi's harsh summer months - which is when Soni is compelled to lay off some women working for her.

"I wish they had some work during the months when our sale is negligible... it becomes very difficult for garland makers, they just don't find any work," she says.

Garland makers are generally women and children. To her employees, Soni pays the market price of 50 paisa per marigold garland and a rupee for garlands made of roses or any other flower. However, for the more auspicious but occasional garlands, such as the 'jaimala', or the wedding garland, she gives them around Rs 20 (US$1=Rs 46.2).

Both Phoolwati and Soni preserve their flowers by keeping them covered with damp jute bags, sprinkling water on them frequently during summer. This doesn't always work and there could be losses to face. The women make an average investment of Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 per day, with sales of around Rs 4,000. On festive occasions, such as Diwali and New Year, they can sell flowers for up to Rs 40,000. Of course, these figures can vary give or take a thousand rupees and they usually make a good profit only during the festive seasons. The rest of the time they manage a little above break-even.

Of course, the market does have other women such as Dayawati, who are second-in-command as they assist husbands in their business. Dayawati makes garlands in her husband's shop.

The board above her reads, 'Laxmi flower decoration and special home delivery'. "I have always done this and I won't trade it for any other work. Nobody bosses me around, I do as I please," says Dayawati, who admits that while garland-making is not as profitable as making bouquets, the reliability of the demand for garlands throughout the year makes up for the absence of large margins.

"The 'kothis' and bungalows need fresh garlands every morning, so do the vendors near the temples. Garlands are also needed in all kinds of bulk decoration during the wedding season," she observes. Dayawati works from 9 am to 3 pm. She takes the aid of her hired help, Beena, who is a widow and makes ends by combining her husband's nominal pension with her earnings as a garland maker.

These stories of daily struggle for existence are quickly nipped in the bud in the rush that descends on the market when the big wholesale vendors arrive with their fantastic array of flowers and the rich male bidders and retailers make their purchases for the day.

As the sun rises and each shopkeeper settles down with the fresh flowers that have travelled to them from cities such as Bangalore, Kolkata, Ooty, Kanpur, Indore and even as far off as Lagos and Bangkok - the delicate orchids are one such foreign import - city buyers and retailers follow the waft and trundle into the market. Some individuals wait for a better bargain as the day wanes and the prices drop. Unlike its rival, the floral bazaar at the city centre, Connaught Place, the Mehrauli market stays open until evening.

One realises how indispensable flowers can be for a regular buyer. Says Kalpana of Defence Colony, as she buys two bouquets of a fantastic mix of pink carnations, yellow gerberas and baby's breath from a shop run by Mushtaq, for her daughter's birthday, "Flowers signify freshness. We take a walk in the garden to feel closer to nature. Flowers bring nature into our drawing rooms. When I was little, my father would put bela and chameli near my bed side and I would wake up to their fragrance."

Her enthusiasm is matched by Daman Anand, owner of 'indiafloristdirect.com', who was a flower cultivator, importer and retailer before setting up the international on-line flower delivery service. Anand loves his business because in addition to the profits, flowers never fail to bring a smile to one's face.

But it is ironic that the same flowers that add cheer and warmth in an upper class drawing room, only remind women like Phoolwati, Soni and Beena that their lives haven't blossomed despite their daily grind. It is the fancy flower boutique owners with their high-end clients who are making the fast buck, not those turning out simple but auspicious garlands with their toil-worn hands.

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