Shuttling his gaze between his bandaged left hand and his colleagues who are discussing the time they might take to complete their work, 59-year-old Nand Kishore Singh is suddenly caught unawares. On the crowded main road that turns towards Paranthe Wali Galli in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, an elderly man in a brown suit starts yelling at him. “Mere office mein phone bandh hai kabse (The phone in my office has been inactive for long). I haven’t been getting calls from clients… How long will you take?” the man says angrily.
The man, who runs a Ram Lila committee, is upset because a recent beautification project in Old Delhi, as part of which overhead wires are being concealed, has led to temporary blackout in the area, rendering inactive most phones and the Internet.
Singh assures the man that the work will make “our Purani Dilli (Old Delhi)” prettier. “Wouldn’t you like it if people from outside appreciate this place?” asks Singh.
The man walks away in a huff and Singh, an electrician with the State-owned Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) who is leading a team of six, gets back to work.
In December, as part of a beautification drive ahead of the ASEAN Summit later this month, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) had ordered private telecom and Internet companies and cable service providers to conceal all overhead wires in Old Delhi. The pilot project includes the Chandni Chowk stretch from Gauri Shankar Mandir to Fatehpuri Masjid and the road from Netaji Subhash Marg to Jama Masjid passing through Dharampura.
“VIPs will attend the Summit. We have to present to them a good picture of our city. It was decided that roads and footpaths will be cleaned and monuments scrubbed ahead of the event,” a North MCD official had said.
The deadline was initially set for December 25 but later pushed to January 2. With even that deadline having passed and ASEAN delegates already in the city, workers from these companies are struggling to finish the job. “If any unclaimed wires remain after January 2, we will cut and remove them. The companies will have to bear the losses then,” the official had warned then.
Over the years, open, exposed wires have spread, like tentacles, across Chandni Chowk. From old cast-iron railings to Spanish blinds of extended balconies and even treetops — everything in the 17th-century city is hidden behind bundles of wires. Open wiring is not the only thing that defines the area — hawkers and religious structures have taken over the pavements, forcing pedestrians to walk on roads that have been further squeezed by vehicles parked on either side. Yet, thousands of people visit the market every day.
“The biggest problem in Chandni Chowk is that we have to separate each wire from a tangled bundle — the MTNL wire, for instance, is all jumbled up with that of other networks. It is difficult to ensure that other networks don’t get affected when we do our work. Moreover, the wires are so old that they are stuck to the insulation and we can’t rip them off. So we have to burn them,” Singh says.
It is 11.30 am on a Monday, and Singh asks the others to hurry up. “For the last three weeks, I have been reaching Chandni Chowk at 9 am and leaving at 7 pm. We hardly take lunch breaks. But even at this pace, we will take another week to finish,” he sighs, grumbling about how he gets very little time with family — his wife, three sons, and grandchildren.
“If it wasn’t for this,” he says, holding up his bandaged left hand, “I would have worked faster.” Days before they were told of the project, on December 26, he met with an accident. “I was on my way to our office in Delhi Gate when a car brushed past me. I hurt my left hand and left leg,” says Singh, who is set to retire by the end of this year.
“It’s not an easy job. We have to make sure we don’t get electrocuted on work… besides, traders and residents are never happy when we disconnect the connections,” he says.
A new problem has cropped up he says — with Republic Day merely two weeks away, many areas have become inaccessible. “We don’t know how to get work done in the stretches sanitised by security personnel,” he says, periodically climbing ladders and supervising his colleagues.
Ruchika Katyal, Deputy Commissioner of the North civic body, says, “ASEAN or not, after Republic Day or before, we need to beautify the stretch. We have involved all the telecom and Internet companies because it is they who have done it (the wiring) in the first place. Of course, we have been helping them.”
It is 3.30 pm and a salesman from the nearby Delhi Sports Goods Store offers Singh and his team some “chai-biscuit”. “They have been working so hard. Think of how beautiful Chandni Chowk will be after they are done,” says the 22-year-old salesman.
Sipping his tea Singh explains the task at hand. “When these wires were initially installed, nobody really thought about aesthetics. We are now installing solid cable trays that hide these wires while keeping them accessible. Once we are done with that, officials of the municipal corporation can simply cut off all the open wires,” says Singh, who joined MTNL 39 years ago, days after he came to the Capital from his hometown in Siwan, Bihar.
Before Singh can finish his tea, Amit Seth, who works at a bridal shop nearby, walks up to Singh and starts complaining. “When will you finish? Just the other day, somebody told me the CCTVs at a gold bullion shop in the area haven’t been working because of these power cuts. It’s dangerous and frustrating.”
Soon enough, it is 6.30 pm and Singh and his men begin packing up for the day. Home is in Vijay Vihar, 26 km away. As he walks towards the Chandni Chowk Metro station, Singh looks at his watch and mutters: “Again, I will be late… won’t be home before 8-8.30 pm. After that, I’ll only have time for a shower and dinner before I go to bed. If I don’t sleep early, I won’t be able to leave home by 7 am, and our work will never get done.”