Gaurav Chauhan, who works in a multinational in Gurgaon and also resides there, recalls the days he would walk up to a bicycle repair shop with a greasy floor,on which ball bearings would lay scattered.
“I still remember Raju, who ran that cycle repair shop, a few metres away from my home. He started work from a pavement before converting it into a shack. He was always occupied with repair work and earned the respect of people. They would call him Raju bhaiya. He was known to be the best cycle repairer in this locality of Sector 17, Gurgaon,” recalls Chauhan.
Ask Chauhan about Raju’s whereabouts and he responds with sadness.
“These days he has barely any work. The times have changed and nearly everyone owns a two-wheeler. It’s naturally difficult for people like Raju bhaiya to survive just by repairing cycles.”
In Jhandewalan, which houses Delhi’s biggest cycle market and is about an hour’s drive from where Raju’s shack used to be, the situation of cycle repairers is barely different.
Jahed Ali has been working here for the last 40years.
Ali begins by recalling the old times with nostalgia.
“Aaj se 40 saal pehle yahaan sirf do scooter khade hua karte the, aura aj jahaan nazar jaye vahaan gadiyan hi gadiyan hain (Forty years ago, there used to be only two scooters here. But today, there are cars as far as the eye can see). I have been sitting here at this spot for the last forty years and observed a lot. All the DCPs, SHOs and constables – most of who cycle mainly for fitness these days — come to me to get their bicycles repaired. However, this doesn’t mean that the condition of the cycle repairers in the city is stable. No, it is not,” says Ali, who holds a license for his work.
A decade ago, Ali wouldmake Rs 1000 a day. Nowadays though, he makes only half of it. Some days when the police officers are generous, he gets a tip that brings his daily earning to the same level as in the past.
While he accepts that the demand for pushbikes has increased due to growing interest and focus on fitness, those involved in its repair work do not benefit.
“The craze [for bicycles] is only in a section of the society. The sales have increased but only for the traders. I am still getting the work I used to get three years ago. The repairers don’t get enough work because people still prefer replacement over repair. A handful of people who come to get the cycle repaired feel reluctant to pay if we demand a little extra money,” he laments.
Like Ali, there are several cycle repairers who are forced to live hand-to-mouth.
An hour’s drive from Jhandewalan, in north-east Delhi’s Karawal Nagar, Makhan Lal sits opposite a wholesale cycle shop.
“This year, I complete 20 years of working under this roof as a cycle repairer,” says the 52-year-old.
“Until recently, I used to charge anywhere between Rs 200-1000 for repairing a cycle with significant damage. Sometimes, repairing can take more than a day’s work. These days, people hardly want repairing as they assume it is a tiresome process. So, they simply buy a new one.”
These days, some of the bicycles that come for repair belong to athletes.
“There are expensive cycles too which come for repairing and they mostly belong to athletes or young people.But they aren’t too many so as to provide us enough. Moreover, most of the cycle repairers don’t have a license, so we have to give around Rs 500 per month to policewalas to sit here.”
Irfan, who sits in the Jhandewalan cycle market, says, “I have been working here for the past 25 years and clearly none of the repairers (except Jahed) have license because we are not literate enough to understand the process nor we have the time. The authorities and government should understand that in times where every problem has an online solution, we are forced to sit on the pavement for bread and butter without a license.”
Woes of the shopkeepers
The cycle market in Jhandewalan is a busy place. Shops have cropped up on either side of the street. It was established in 1975 after most of the 150-odd shops in the cycle market in Chandni Chowk were relocated here.
It has over 200 retailers, distributors and assemblers of Indian and foreign bicycle brands. The market is open daily from 10 am to 7 pm, except on Mondays.
Brijesh Sharma, 29, works at the Rachhpal Cycle Store in the market. He has been working here since the last seven years as a salesman.
He says the demand for bicycles grew during the pandemic as health-conscious citizens began to invest in it. But to his utter dismay, the sales went down after a while.
“Our regular customers are parents who prefer to see their kids use bicycles,” he says as he mentions the decline in popularity of bicycles among common people.
“Anyone can afford a two-wheeler with EMI options available to them nowadays. Why would people in need of a mode of transport go for bicycles,” he explains.
“Small shopkeepers like us don’t have a support system. Margins are minimal. We have brands like Hero, TI, Atlas, Avon, Firefox, Trek, Giant and several others. To keep the store full with variety, we need big amount [of money].”
United Cycle Store has numerous brands. Raj Kumar, a 25-year-old salesman at the shop, says that they have nearly all brands of cycles, including the imported ones.
“Our range starts from Rs. 12,000 and goes up to Rs one lakh,” he says.
Manoj Khanna of Venus Trading Company says: “The sales are absolutely down. The market is struggling. We try to help the repairers too by sending the customers to them but the thing is, there is hardly any customer. On top of it, the customers bargain too much. Nobody bargains in a mall or a big showroom but they’ll bargain here.”
Price and alternative junction
Multan Cycles have been in the market for the past 35years in the three-storey office-cum-shopping complex in Jhandelwalan. One can find every brand in this store.
Moreover, the one thing that sets Multan Cycles apart from the rest of the stores is the fact that they have their own product called Carbon which is cost effective and durable. It is also one of their best-selling items.
Price, as one of the co-owners points out, is an issue for the middle-class people.
“People come to Jhandelwalan cycle market for budget cycles. We mostly try to sell these. However, at times they still don’t feel it is the ‘right’ price!,” says Tarun Grigdhar, co-owner of the shop.
“Yes, demand rose during the first wave of the pandemic. But that’s not the case now. We are struggling and the sales have come down drastically. A brand like Stryder has been giving tough competition to the evergreen Firefox bicycles,” he adds.
Grigdhar also highlights digital shopping as a threat to the market.
“People want the best deal and there’s nothing new in that. Customers have always been ‘choosy’ when it comes to price of not just the bicycle but for everything. However, people are looking for cheaper products online nowadays more than ever before. They get discount on the purchase which has really stagnated the sales for us. The market has become very competitive and we don’t have that much of margin that we can offer huge discount. Hence, we struggle,” adds Grigdhar.
Grigdhar and his brother run the Multan Cycles shop, which was established by their grandfather.
Things are similar for other shopkeepers across the city.
Samanth Baveja of New Gandhi Cycle Works in south Delhi’s Chattarpur area says, “Up until two to three years ago, cycling was just a cup of tea for the kids. But nowadays, youngsters have also been using bicycles for healthy lifestyle. It’s become a sort of a trend. But despite the growing interest and intent for buying bicycles, the boom that everyone noticed was only momentary. We are back to the struggling track.”