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Painful makeover

In a year from now, Chandni Chowk’s redevelopment will be done. Until then, however, the buzz in the bazaar is all about the inconveniences faced

‘As you sit stranded in a traffic jam, half-choked by rickshaw fumes and the ammonia stink of the municipal urinals, you see around you a sad vista of collapsing shop fronts and broken balustrades, tatty warehouses roofed with corrugated iron and patched with rusting duckboards. The canal which ran down the centre of the bazaar has been filled in; the trees have been uprooted. All is tarnished, fraying at the edges.

This is how Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple described Chandni Chowk in his 1994 book City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, which seems similar to how it is today. With the ongoing redevelopment plan in the construction phase, almost everyone in the vicinity of the construction site is despondent.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is not new in the area, but the situation of traffic has worsened so much that many e-rikshaw drivers can be seen sitting idle on their parked e-rikshaws rather than venture into the melee.

And it’s all part of the ongoing redevelopment project which kickstarted on December 1 last year. The project is said to be completed by March 2020 at a cost of Rs 65 crore. Envisaged as the country’s first all-pedestrian street market, the plan also constitutes reviving the old heritage character of the area.

The project not only will decongest the footpaths and the road of the area, but also the skyline, which currently has a tapestry of electric and telephone wires.

The 1.5 km-long stretch has been divided in four parts: Red Fort to Gurudwara; Gurudwara to Townhall; Townhall to Ballimaran and then till Fatehpuri.

As per the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (planning & engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC) plan, the 1.5 km stretch from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque will be transformed for pedestrians, allowing only non-motorised vehicles to operate in the area from 9 am to 9 pm. No vehicles will be allowed here once the project is completed.

It is said that in the past, a canal ran through the length of the stretch which reflected the moonlight. Today, all you see is chaos.

Besides being known for its beauty, the road finds mention in history. This is the same road which around the year 1659 saw Dara Shukoh, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son, humiliated by being forcefully marched down the full length of Chandni Chowk. “Just before he entered the city, he was transferred to a ‘miserable and worn out animal, covered with filth’. Holding his young son in front of him in a sort of cruel parody of his wedding procession, he was humiliatingly marched publicly down the full length of the new Chandni Chowk,” reads an extract from the book City of Djinns.

It needs a vivid imagination to recreate this image, for the 1.5-km stretch from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque is currently covered with dust, which suffocates every wall and corner of the plethora of shops in the area.

“The authorities have decreed that if we want to undertake construction, we have to install aluminum boundary walls, so that the dust doesn’t bother other people in the area. But I don’t see that happening here. The dust is coming inside my shop,” says Prashant Kapoor, who sells general provisions.

He also says that almost all shopkeepers and traders are facing problems in conducting their business. “Neither are we able to order adequate stock nor are we able to sell what we already have,” says Kapoor.

Before the construction, Kapoor adds, “Every shop used to get goods by tempo, but now it’s all being done with the help of manual labour. It used to cost us Rs 10 for a short distance, but now we end up paying Rs 100.”

Kapoor also adds that ever since the construction commenced, he is “facing breathing problems and has a persistent cough that makes it hard to focus on work.”

He is not the only one —another shopkeeper Patriot spoke to also talks about the same problem: “loading/unloading issues are persisting.”

Inderdeep Singh, a cloth-shop owner, giving the example of Delhi Metro, says “It’s a big thing we achieved as citizens of Delhi. When DMRC was doing construction in different areas of the city, citizens did not face much problem. That’s not the case here.”

“The construction is not even taking place at a fast pace. They work for merely 6-7 hours and are done with it. With this pace, I don’t think they would be able to achieve the set target,” says Singh.

The situation in front of Fatehpuri Mosque is worse. Since the intersection tends to be crowded in off-peak hours too, the ongoing construction sees worse jams than before.

“I get tired just watching the traffic in front of my shop. The noise is so unbearable that you start having a headache. This construction has not only created a traffic mess, but has also stolen my business,” says Anil Jan, 50, a sweet-shop owner.

He says, before the construction, people used to gaze at the shop from outside, and think of trying the sweets. “But now everyone just wants to leave the intersection as soon as they can, so business is down 80 per cent,” he adds.

Taking rest from loading cycle rickshaws, Sunil Kumar, 55, has been getting work since 1989 in Chandni Chowk. “I came to Delhi looking for some work. I was ready to work as a manual labourer and this area provided me with lots of opportunities.” Unfortunately, due to the ongoing construction, he currently faces “little or no work opportunities.”

“I used to earn about Rs 250 per day, but now I barely make Rs 50. I cannot even feed my family properly,” says Kumar. When told that the traders are complaining about the cost of loading/unloading goods manually, he says, “But do they realise that the number of trips we can make in this traffic is low?”

Like Kumar, the e-rickshaw drivers are also facing loss of business. “You get stuck in traffic for an hour. Reaching Town Hall is taking us minimum 40 minutes. With just five passengers in one trip, how am I supposed to earn like I used to?” asks Ram Kishan, an e-rickshaw driver.

While some are finding the construction problematic, the visitors tell another story. In the crowd is an Australian couple, marveling at the beauty of the heritage buildings.

“This is our first time in India. We were quite excited about coming to Chandni Chowk, as we had heard a lot about it. It’s congested with traffic, but we will not let this dampen our enthusiasm,” says the couple.

The current picture of Chandni Chowk also shows the element of urbanisation in an area which has been hosting bazars since decades.

While shop owners and e-rickshaw drivers scream of countless problems due to the construction, Sanjeev Bhargava, president of Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal, has a different take on the subject.

“Even when we get our homes painted, we face trouble. I don’t understand why is there such a hue and cry. In fact, business has actually boomed in the area. People keep flocking in huge numbers. I can say that once the construction is completed, Chandni Chowk will look better than ever,” says Bhargava.

He is excited about the prospects. “After the Britishers, some redevelopment is finally taking place in the area and it’s for our good only. The pollution level has come down to 300 ever since vehicular movement has been barred in the area.”

Perhaps if the traders too fast forwarded to 2020, they could visualise the end-result of this redevelopment.