The Future of Eliava Market – Vendors Waiting for a Specific Decision

Elene Shengelia, Tamta Jijavadze,

Text by Tamta Jijavadze 

Photos by Elene Shengelia 

 

Miriann Ziraqadze works in a labyrinth, quite literally. The stand of construction material the 60-year-old rents is one of the thousands lined up in chaotic disorder in Eliava, the market off tourists’ beaten track which is possibly one of Tbilisi’s most fascinating spots. Named after one of the streets nearby, Eliava is not the same market Ziraqadze started trading 23 years ago and as environmental concerns grow, discussions to relocate it have been going on for years.

“I can’t see a viable alternative,” lament Ziraqadze. “Those who work here don’t have any other source of income and by now the Eliva is huge, how can you move it?”

A maze of tightly packed stalls with drab tin roofs and shops, the Eliava opened in 1995. The Soviet Union’s meltdown in 1991 had led Georgia to two civil wars, pushed its economy in freefall and driven its people into desperate bread lines. Tbilisians would flock to the newly opened market to find cheap repair material to fix anything from bathrooms to roofs. Since then, every day thousands of vendors offer a bonanza of shower coils and taps, nuts and bolts, screwdrivers and hammers, nails and arc-welding machines, electric wires, paints and brushes - you name it.

Eliava has kept on growing to reach its current size of 15 hectares on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. Aleko Kakhiani, one of the market’s owners, estimate that about 15,000 people work every day in and around Eliava, providing for about 100,000 people.

Its growth however outpaced healthy and safety measures. In October 2018 a fire destroyedabout 800 square metres of the market, a year earlier a blaze had burnt about 2,300 square metres - in both occasions the emergency service pointed out at the lack of fire hydrants and limited number of exits.

The impact on the environment and public health is increasingly a concern.

Pollution, dust, unsanitary conditions have taken a toll on many of Eliava’s workers, especially those who have been working in and around the market for decades.

Some areas of the market are well-organised but large areas are a chaotic assemble to objects and dust. There are several car repair service, which spread toxic chemicals around.

The gargantuan area is a maze of kiosks, stalls and shops with electric wires dangling freely everywhere. Fires are not uncommon in the market.

Scrap metal is to be found everywhere, with thousand of pieces dating back to Soviet times.

“Chemicals and the toxic emissions from the repair shops are the main polluters of both the ground and the water as the market is right by the river,” explains toxicologist Khatuna Akhalaia, adding that the dangerous acids coming out of old vehicles and accumulators, many fdating back to the Soviet times, flow directly into the soil and sewage.

Proposals to move the market in a new location, with appropriate environmental and safety measures, find many in agreement but vendors ask for economic reassurances. Just like Ziraqadze, Eliava is Tamaz Khelashvili’s only source of income. The 61-year-old father of two used to disassemble cars, now he has a stall in the market where he sells vehicles’ second-hand parts.   

“Why should this market be moved elsewhere? People work here, they have families to feed. If it is moved we’ll have no choice but to follow to earn money for living.”

Stallholders like Khelashvili and Ziraqadze however have no saying in the plans - whatever they are.

Negotiations with the market owners are open, but despite only one meeting was held and no decision was taken, Tbilisi’s City Hall stated in a press note. Two options are on the table: one foresees the development of the existing infrastructure, the other the relocation of the market. In the latter there no alternative area has been identified yet. The ownership of the gargantuan market is split by five large companies, which own most of it, and a plethora of smaller companies with up to five shops.

In March 2019 the approved General Plan for Land Use of Tbilisi, which defines all the parameters for the capital’s development, stated the need for additional research to define Eliava’s future. 

“In the plan preference is given to recreational areas and greenery, but next steps can be taken only once the research is over,” says Mamuka Saluqvadze, the director of “City Institute,” a private company which worked with the city hall on the city plan. “We provided recommendations but the Eliava is a private property, the final decision lies with the owners and the city hall.”

The uncertainty benefits no one. The Trading Center Didube LTD owns about a third of the market and has about 3,000 leaseholder; Nugzar Imnaishvili, the company’s technical director, maintains that owners are trying to upgrade their areas.

“We have no idea when and how the project will be defined, so we’ve started developing our own parts of the territory. We’ve already built a stadium and our vision is to have a shopping center with both recreational and green areas. We applied to the City Hall in April (2019) but we have received no response yet.

Kakhiani, who is also at the helm of Tata LTD, agrees - Eliava should stay just where it is and restored.

“The reclaim plans should affect no one, neither the owners nor the leaseholders. If the market is relocated to say, Avtchala, it will lose all the customers. Maybe they could move only those selling second-hand parts,” says Kakhiani whose 180 leaseholders trade mainly in furniture, employing a total of 540 people.

“Eliava Market is more than just a place for trading, it’s a social space. For most vendors it is the only source of income, like in my case” – Tamaz Khelashvili ,61 years old.

Traders and workers do not have strong opinions about the market location. While acknowledging that the market is crowded and conditions far from ideal many fear that moving it will increase rental costs, pushing them out of business.

Eliava is largely the place to go for construction and DIY materials, but there are also many food stalls catering for the people working there. There is little, if any at all, supervision about the health and safety conditions in which food is kept, especially during Tbilisi’s scorching summers.

“I feel most of the times it is useless for me to come and sell. I try, but people don’t have money. Georgia’s economy struggles, it is a much bigger problem than the future of Eliava.” Mirian Ziraqadze, 60 years old.

The press office claims that the City Hall is waiting for the parliament to approve the draft law on determining the rules for placement and realization of secondary tire, scrap and dusty substances.

“After that, the municipality plans will take on board measures to prevent the pollution. As for the development and modernization, the City Hall and the owners will negotiate to make a final decision in the nearest future,” stated a note sent to Chai Khana.

Noise, small, and dust affect residents too.

“Summers are horrible. We submitted several complaints to the City Hall, to no avail,” says Naira Meskhi, 62, who now regrets buying a flat in front of the market in 2009.

“We can’t open the windows, the laundry gets all covered in dust. And we are lucky as we live on the sixth floor, those on the first and second floors should probably wear special masks. How can we survive when even the trees are collapsing?”

Should Eliava remain in its current location it should be cleaned and properly equipped, notes Akhalaia. Measures include special concrete and waterproof tiles to prevent soil pollution, ventilation system in the automotive services to avoid the exposure of harmful substances in the surrounding area. And greenery.

“Lots of trees and green is the only solution,” she maintains.

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