New Delhi: When the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad — now old Delhi — he allowed his favourite daughter Jahanara’s imagination to conceive its main street and marketing hub, Chandni Chowk.
The moonlit square.
For nearly 400 years, the spirit of that bustling market — an important trading centre in north India — has remained indomitable, but time has heaped on it layers of neglect and anarchy.
But all that is set to change next month, when the Delhi government unveils the new look of the historical site after working hard at it for nearly three years.
The first phase of the project, which is complete, concentrates on the beautification of the 1.3-kilometre stretch between Red Fort’s Lahori Gate and the Fatehpuri Masjid — the main thoroughfare of this historical hub since the 17th century.
The menace of motor vehicles is gone from this road as only manually-pedalled rickshaws are allowed. The street has also been beautified — retiled, potted with plants, and pavements widened for a better walking experience. The dirty mesh of overhead wires has also been removed.
The work, which started in December 2018, has been implemented by the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) and Delhi’s Public Works Department (PWD).
However, like other attempts at the redesign of a historical place, Chandni Chowk’s preservation is also fraught with criticism. Preservation is a one-way street as there is no going back, experts said.
Murmurs have, therefore, risen whether laying tiles over the central verge has “silenced the dynamism of centuries”.
There are also questions on when the rest of the teeming area will get a makeover as the first phase missed several deadlines due to Covid and other issues.
And what are the permanent stakeholders saying — those whose livelihoods depend on the economy of the main street?
Phase 1: The new look
As one enters Chandni Chowk, posters on steel gates warn that motor vehicles would be fined Rs 20,000 if they enter the revamped road opposite Red Fort between 9 am and 9 pm.
The Chandni Chowk road is freshly tiled with red sandstone, its sides colourful with flowerpots, punctuated with benches for the tired feet. The untangled mess of the overhead wires, the low-hanging loops have also been taken underground. Several residents felt that the street is now a tourist’s delight, a shopper’s haven.
The old water pipeline has been replaced with new ones, while the existing sewerage network has been cleaned with its inner surface re-laid. A dedicated water line has also been created to feed street fire hydrants in the area which is notorious for frequent blazes.
Nodal officer of the project, Nitin Panigrahi, said: “Since Chandni Chowk is the very kitchen of street food, gas pipelines have been laid along the entire stretch so as to make these congested food joints safe.”
He added: “There’s no plan for vending zones in the stretch as hawking has been prohibited here by various courts.”
To top all efforts, the market did not stop bustling even one day during the redevelopment work — except for the Covid lockdown.
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Mixed reactions from stakeholders
The permanent stakeholders of the area — regular commuters, shopkeepers, rickshaw pullers, residents and streetside hawkers — whose livelihoods and heritage are connected to the main street are either happy or circumspect.
With cars missing from the scene, business has improved for the rickshaw pullers. Ibrahim, 32, who has been in the business for 10 years, said: “Customers ko ab rickshaw se hi jana padta hai, par licence hona chahiye (Customers now have to travel in rickshaws but we need licences to operate).”
But his friend Rajdeep, who drives a battery rickshaw, is unhappy because entry is banned for him.
Commuter Pramod Kumar, though, is irritated that the area is now overrun by rickshaws, making it difficult to enter nearby Chawri Bazar. He said the police have to deflate tyres at times to reduce overcrowding.
Traders are also divided over the redevelopment. President of Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal Sanjay Bhargava said business has improved in the area and business will get better once the pandemic settles down. He said: “The footfall is expected to increase by 60 per cent as there is no traffic jam now.
Bhargava also said the air quality has improved in the area.
Jasroop Singh, a third-generation shopkeeper at Lal Stores, is unhappy that cars have been banned from the road during the day. “While social distancing is possible now, old people need cars to come up to specific shops. It is also not easy to stock the shop before 9 am or after 9 pm. It is difficult for the staff.”
For 30-year-old Mehak Dogra, a regular shopper at Chandni Chowk, the experience is now more practical. “One doesn’t have to worry about traffic jams anymore.”
Manohar Lal, a 65-year-old resident, however, would have liked better guidelines for homeowners to leave and enter the area. “We have no problem following rules, but there needs to be a mechanism in place for residents,” he said.
BJP leader Vijay Goel — who has represented Delhi Sadar constituency once and Chandni Chowk twice in the Lok Sabha — criticised the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government for developing just one road.
He told ThePrint: “What will one good road achieve? The whole traffic burden just moves to other mohallas and small roads.”
Goel is the owner of a restored haveli in the undeveloped area of Chandni Chowk. Known as the Dharampur Haveli, it offers five-star facilities to tourists. It was also commended by UNESCO in 2019.
Though shut due to the pandemic, Goel believes tourists will fill up the hotel once the entire area is focused on.
What experts say
Historian and convener of the Delhi chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage), Swapna Liddle, lauded the upgradation of services and absence of hanging wires at Chandni Chowk, but said the development of the rest still needs to be addressed. “The issue was of poor management and through this project, we are finding a development solution to a management problem.”
Liddle, who is also the author of ‘Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi’, added: “Making a lane vehicle-free and pedestrian-friendly could also mean shifting the bottleneck as poor traffic management continues on the main road.”
Liddle also pointed out that focusing on developing only the street and not the buildings wasn’t a fair long-term solution, especially when business comes from the shops and eateries in the buildings.
Noted conservationist and executive director of World Monuments Fund, India, Amita Baig said traders were unhappy because their community was not consulted before implementation of the project.
“In my view, this is another Dilli Haat. We also need to understand that India is not a London or a Paris where people are willing to walk so much. It will be torture at 44 degrees Celsius,” she said.
Architect and urban planner Professor A.G.K. Menon feels there’s more to development than beautifying facades. “This is a beautification project, not quite a development project.”
He said: “Beautification is a part of developing a heritage site but that is not the only thing to do. We need to realise the relevance of nurturing a site like Chandni Chowk and have separate bylaws for it as there is in Italy.” He added that laws in Milan, Florence and Venice differ from each other.
Menon, who is a member of INTACH, said governments always focus on developing new cities rather than conserving heritage ones.
Recalling a run-in with authorities over the need to preserve Chandni Chowk, Menon said: “Once we had recommended to a panel of IAS officers that Shahjahanabad be included as a world heritage site. He had laughed and asked us if we were crazy to insult India’s heritage by advocating a slum site.”
Also read: How the imperial wives & daughters of Shah Jahan & Aurangzeb built Old Delhi
How it all began
The project was conceived by the Congress-led government in 2006. The first comprehensive proposal was prepared by the SRDC in 2015.
But work only began in 2018 after the intervention of the Delhi High Court. That December, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia laid the foundation stone for the project.
In the first phase of the project, utilities such as electric and other cables were taken underground, and dedicated lanes for non-motorised transport and walkways were constructed. Facilities such as toilets, ATMs, and benches were provided.
SRDC — the nodal agency for the redevelopment project — plans to improve the facade in the second phase. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi Traffic Police, and the Archaeological Survey of India are among the other stakeholders.
The project missed its original March 2020 deadline due to the pandemic and legal issues in removing encroachments.
Elaborating on the challenges, the project’s nodal officer Nitin Panigrahi said they had to fight a “perception battle” about restricting cars in such a large commercial area. Traders thought this would result in enormous loss to business, he said.
Panigrahi told ThePrint: “We gave them empirical evidence as well as examples to allay unfounded fears. We have successfully convinced them that unless motorised vehicles are restricted, it’s not possible to decongest streets.”
He added the project has cost Rs 99 crore so far.
(This report has been updated to edit out information that was not sourced accurately.)
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