For Chandni Chowk’s voters, it’s a struggle between the old and the newhttps://indianexpress.com/elections/2019-general-election-schedule/for-chandni-chowks-voters-its-a-struggle-between-the-old-and-the-new-5722478/

For Chandni Chowk’s voters, it’s a struggle between the old and the new

In the days preceding the elections, conversations around issues like infrastructural development, traffic congestion and also the disruption caused by ongoing construction work in the area, are common.

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An artist’s impression of how the Delhi government wants Chandni Chowk to eventually look

Muhammad Jahangir prizes anything historical… what he calls ‘shahi time ka’ (from the royal times). Growing up in his nearly 100-year-old haveli in Matia Mahal, near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, he has held on dearly to every such object which reminds him of his ancestors’ association with the royal past of Old Delhi. Among the many treasures that Jahangir possesses is a painting of Emperor Shah Jahan visiting the Jama Masjid that has been preserved in the family through generations. “Once a foreigner had offered a huge amount of money for the painting, but I refused. It is part of my family’s heritage,” says Jahangir.

Old Delhi, which is the seat of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, has a special significance in the history of the city. Not only did Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and the later Mughals chose this as their seat of rule, but it continued to remain the center of power even when the British took over, and were later driven out of India. “This place was chosen by the Mughals as their capital because of the abundance of water available in and around here,” says Jahangir. “There are so many old wells and tanks in the region that even if the government failed to provide us with water, we will face no problem.”

Loosely referred to as Chandni Chowk, old Delhi was the city conceived by emperor Shah Jahan in the mid 17th century, and named after himself as ‘Shahjahanabad’ in an obvious bid to immortalise his name. “Shahjahanabad probably best exemplifies the grandeur that came to be associated with the word ‘Mughal,” writes historian Swapna Liddle in her book ‘Chandni Chowk: The Mughal city of old Delhi’. But the uniqueness of Shahjahanabad lay not just in the majestic urban structure that it was, but also in a distinctive cultural and architectural landscape that it produced. As Liddle goes on to add, “it also represented certain other core attributes of the Mughal empire, such as the composite culture that grew on the foundations of the rich cultural diversity of its citizens.”

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Loosely referred to as Chandni Chowk, old Delhi was the city conceived by emperor Shah Jahan in the mid 17th century, and named after himself as ‘Shahjahanabad’ in an obvious bid to immortalise his name. ( Photo- Wikimedia Commons)

Some distance away, closer to the Red Fort, former journalist Ashok Mathur lives in his nearly 150-year-old haveli with his father, wife and daughter. “Old Delhi is a civilisation. The havelis are a treasure trove of lifestyle and culture, which is all lost today,” says Mathur. He explains that the havelis are all constructed in the Indo-Islamic style of architecture. “Such was the lifestyle in old Delhi that several communities coexisted peacefully, and each one of them brought their own specific styles to the architecture of the havelis,” he says.

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But then the last of the Mughals left over 150 years ago, and Delhi 6 is at best a pale shadow of its past. The city that was once known for its rich lifestyle and exquisite havelis is today a commercial space, selling some of the best food and wedding garments in India.

“There was a time when I could view the Connaught Place standing on the roof of my haveli. Today, I can see nothing but high walls,” says Mathur. “Illegal construction has completely ruined the heritage of this place. I wonder if even one per cent of the construction that has taken place in Old Delhi in the past years had any legal sanction,” he adds, reminiscing about all the havelis that have been sold out and converted into warehouses, godowns, and now flats.

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Former journalist Ashok Mathur in his 150-year old haveli in Roshanpura, Nai sadak. (photo- Adrija Roychowdhury)

In stark contrast to the fascination he holds for antique products, Jahangir says that he too had demolished the older haveli where he lived to build a multi-storeyed apartment. “What was earlier one family has now turned into ten families. The older havelis did not have enough spaceand have been converted into multi-storey buildings,” he says. When asked about the licensing of the newer constructions he says that “there is no such approval needed”. “The residents of the havelis get the construction done themselves,” he adds.

Diwan Chand Chhabra owns a wedding garment shop on the Chandni Chowk road, one of the oldest markets of Delhi which stretched out from front of the Red Fort. “From needles to planes, everything is sold in Chandni Chowk,” says Chhabra. He explains that over time almost all parts of old Delhi which were previously residential areas have been converted into markets. “There is a lot of potential for business here. The overhead costs of any business establishment is very less here,” he explains. However, Chhabra notes that the rampant construction of shops in the area, mostly illegally, has completely destroyed the heritage of the place.

This erstwhile Shahjahanabad is part of the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency which will be voting on May 12. In the days preceding the elections, conversations around issues like infrastructural development, traffic congestion and also the disruption caused by ongoing construction work in the area, are common.

“This election is completely dominated by issues like national security and relations with Pakistan. Would any party even consider the issues we face here such as heritage preservation, traffic congestion, illegal construction as an election issue?” asks Mathur. He goes on to add that multiple parties working at various levels of governance in Chandni Chowk is a wonderful show of democracy, but it means nothing if all the parties act the same way. “I wonder if the candidates from these various parties have anything to offer me for the next five years. Nothing will change,” he says.

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This erstwhile Shahjahanabad is part of the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency which will be voting on May 12. (Photo- Wikimedia Commons)

Chhabra says a different take. “We have to move on with time. It is not relevant to preserve a 300-year-old lifestyle,” he says, adding that development projects need to be carried out in a way that the public do not get disturbed in any way.

Heritage experts have frequently pointed out to the lack of attention being paid to the preservation of Chandni Chowk’s rich heritage. “We have been asking all parties to have heritage preservation in Chandni Chowk as one of their plans. But no one is interested,” says AGK Menon, chief consultant in INTACH, Delhi chapter. “I personally feel that we as a society are disinterested in our heritage,” he adds.

The issue of illegal constructions comes under the list of responsibilities of the municipal corporation. In days preceding the Lok Sabha elections, political parties are quick to shrug off their responsibility in the matter. “This is the work of the corporation. The parliament has no say in it,” says Jai Prakash Agarwal, the Congress candidate from Chandni Chowk. AAP candidate Pankaj Gupta counters: “In any case, this is the responsibility of the municipal corporation. They should have taken up this matter, but if they have not then we will definitely look into it.” “However, I have not come across any such case yet,” he adds.

But the government has recognised the need to develop parts of old Delhi for the sake of boosting tourism. In December 2018, the AAP-led government in the state started the Rs 65-crore Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan with the idea of decongesting the road and skyline between the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort and the Fatehpuri Masjid.

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In December 2018, the AAP-led government in the state started the Rs 65-crore Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan with the idea of decongesting the road and skyline between the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort and the Fatehpuri Masjid. (Photo- Adrija Roychowdhury)

Residents of the area, however, are rather uncomfortable about the plan. Those residing or trading close to Chandni Chowk market complain how the construction work has been hampering business and keeping customers away. “The government showed us a film to tell us how beautiful this place will look once the project is over. But we hardly see any work happening here,” Chhabra says, pointing at the construction work going on right outside his shop.

Praful Gundhi, who owns a 200-year-old perfumery in Dariba Kalan, says the AAP government’s redevelopment plan has caused more problems for him. One road is completely blocked, and the other is partially blocked. “Customers are not able to come to the shops.” He says preservation of heritage needs to happen in tandem with maintaining jobs and businesses. “What is the point of all this if all the businesses shut down?” he asks.

Conservationists too have expressed their doubts over the redevelopment plan and its impact. “It will destroy Chandni Chowk. Heritage would be gone, it would be a completely new thing. There would be toilets and transformers in the middle of the road,” says Menon.

Gupta, however, is of the firm belief that the redevelopment plan will not cause any kind of heritage disruption and people will in fact be happier once it’s completed. “A lot of other market associations have started asking me to have a similar plan in their areas also,” he says. “If at all some people are raising issues against the plan today, it is only because elections are nearby,” he adds.

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The upcoming elections, however, is a matter on which the residents and traders of Chandni Chowk have little to say. Highlighting his lack of faith in any political party, Gundhi says that everyone is short-sighted in carrying out development work here. “This market has developed over the years. You have to keep in mind its history while developing it. None of these parties think how they improve this place, nor do they ever discuss with us about it,” he says.