Leith Walk favourite Punjabi Junction closes due to student flat development worries

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FOR over 30 years, it has used a cultural love of food to help women overcome isolation and provide dozens more with employment opportunities.

But now, a social enterprise described as a “second home” for members of the Capital’s Sikh community has been forced to close its doors in the wake of uncertainty over a massive student flats development.

Founder Trishna Singh outside Punjabi Junction. PIC: Alistair Linford

Founder Trishna Singh outside Punjabi Junction. PIC: Alistair Linford

Punjabi Junction was founded in 1989 as a way of increasing inclusion and education among those recently arrived in the city.

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However the cafe – based on Leith Walk since 2010 – is set to move out of its current home amid a row over the creation of more than 400 student flats on the street.

Drum Property Group launched a £50 million bid for a “multi-use” development at Stead’s Place in 2017, only to have plans knocked back by Council planning chiefs earlier this year following strong local opposition.

The firm launched an appeal with Scottish ministers, but were dealt another blow in May when University of Edinburgh bosses pulled out of the project.

Darshan Caur, cafe manager Sinita Potiwal and Asha Singh PIC: Alistair Linford

Darshan Caur, cafe manager Sinita Potiwal and Asha Singh PIC: Alistair Linford

But the decision has left many businesses based in the red sandstone building – including Punjabi Junction – in limbo as they prepare to move out by Drum’s deadline at the end of the year.

Founder Trishna Singh OBE admitted she “felt like crying” after learning the cafe would be forced to close, adding it was a “very sad moment” for the community.

She added: “It is incredibly sad that the café has to close, it’s a vital part of the Sikh community”

“Food is only a small part of what Punjabi Junction offers, it also creates opportunities for ethnic minority women to overcome social exclusion and become independent”

PIC: Alistair Linford

PIC: Alistair Linford

The cafe was initially launched at its Leith Walk location as Punjabi de Rasoi in 2010, before undergoing a full redecoration and rebrand as Punjabi Junction three years later thanks to the Sikh Sanjog women’s organisation.

Chef Darshan Kaur was just 19 when she moved to Edinburgh from Southampton to marry, but quickly became “shy and socially isolated”.

Mum-of-five Darshan, 51, said her anxiety became so severe, she was unable to leave the house or travel by herself, however she revealed the cafe had given her “a new lease of life.”

She said: “I was very hesitant to come to Punjabi Junction. I just didn’t think it was for me.

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“But it has changed my life, I have learned so many skills and I now have the confidence to speak up, I can chat easily to anyone and everyone when I am out.”

Asha Singh began working at the cafe nine years ago after moving to the Capital from India as a teenager.

The mum-of-three, now 48, recalled the “hard and shocking change” of creating a new life almost 5,000 miles from home, but explained how Punjabi Junction allowed her to be more “confident and independent”.

She said: “I no longer feel the need to ask permission, I feel like I have control over my own life. I will miss this café so much, it is family to me, we all have fun here and I am just so sad it will be gone.”

Community campaigners praised the Council decision to throw out the plans last month, but acknowledged it was too late to save the businesses – which also include restaurant Cassia, event space Leith Depot and the Leith Walk Cafe – currently occupying the block.

The development also proposed to create a 56-bedroom hotel and 53 affordable homes, as well as business space, but locals have urged Drum to abandon the plans altogether.

Speaking after the decision, Green councillor Susan Rae said: “I really welcome this news. It’s a testament to the skill, dedication and determination of the Save Leith Walk campaign and demonstrates that the university has listened to the community and learned.

“It is time that Drum Property Group did likewise. First their proposals were rejected by the community, then by the full planning committee – now their preferred accommodation provider has pulled out. Those voices need to be listened to and respected”

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The developer – which has also seen plans for their St Margaret’s House site at Meadowbank stall over Brexit fears – insisted units facing onto Leith Walk will be available for local businesses and community groups.

Cafe Manager Sinita Potiwal, 29, said she was worried about the impact of the closure on the wider Sikh community, admitting she feared it could lead to less social inclusion and further isolation in the future.

However Sinita, who began attending the cafe with her mother three years ago, has backed the cafe to overcome this setback.

She said: “My mother used to be so shy and in her shell but she is confident speaking to people she does not know now, she is proud of the skills she has gained and she even enjoys coming out front when customers want to compliment her cooking.”

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