Thursday’s fire at two buildings in Old Delhi’s Bhagirath Place have brought into focus the vulnerability of several congested wholesale markets in the area which were not even supposed to be there.
According to the Delhi Master Plan 2021, all wholesale activity is supposed to be removed from non-confirming areas to the outskirts of the city to avoid congestion in heritage areas.
Yet five years after the latest Master Plan was released in 2007, only the flower market, Fatehpuri, has shifted out of the place. Other markets such as Bhagirath Place, Chawri Bazar paper market and Khari Baoli chemical market are still operating out of the narrow streets where shoppers and merchants jostle for every inch of space.
In the absence of any planned growth, these markets do not have any fire escape plan or enough equipment to deal with a fire emergency. Bal Krishan Jindal, president of Delhi Electrical Traders Association, said they have fire-extinguishers in their shops but Thursday’s fire has proved that the measures are inadequate.
The erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which had to shift these markets, was clueless about the extent of wholesale markets under its own jurisdiction. In a response to an RTI plea last year, the MCD said that it had no information on how many people were involved in the wholesale trade in the city zone. It also did not have any information on whether the trade was expanding with more people joining it.
A North Delhi Municipal Corporation official said Bhagirath Place was protected by a court order to operate out of the area till 2014.
“Markets such as Chandni Chowk, Paharganj and Karol Bagh come under the special areas, which status quo under court orders. That is why they are not being shifted. As for the chemical market and the paper market, they are considered hazardous and need to be shifted as soon as the alternate sites are prepared,” said the official.
These markets have come up on locations that were earlier set up as residential areas. Over the past 60 years, the residents of the area transformed them into commercial areas by building additional structures.
Since these shops have come up illegally, most of the traders in these areas operate without any trade licence. According to an RTI reply, only 7,600-odd traders of a total one lakh businessmen have trading licence in the city zone.