iconimg Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
December 16, 2012
Last week, as many of us were fretting about how it was getting too cold for our kids to attend school, some parents in East Delhi's Dallupura slum had no such worries. Their children did not go to school. On Wednesday, they sent them out under the morning sun in an open patch of land in front of their squatter. Within minutes, the 17-foot boundary wall on one side of the vacant plot came crashing on them, killing five children aged 2-7 years, on the spot.

Officials from police, fire department and the Delhi Disaster Management Authority inspected the site and concluded that the wall of an under-construction warehouse was being built illegally, flouting all norms. As authorities played the blame game, Delhi moved on to its next disaster.

On Thursday, two buildings in Bhagirath Palace, Delhi's biggest electrical goods market in Chandni Chowk, caught fire, reportedly triggered by a short-circuit. As many as 250 men of the 3,500-strong fire department worked in shifts for 48 hours to douse the fire that blazed for two days.

Like that wall in Dallupura, the shops that caught fire in Bhagirath Palace were not supposed to be there. Established before Independence, this market was once a residential area. Over the years, shopkeepers have added floors to buildings built on weak foundations, constructed godowns to stock dangerous chemicals and the expansion has continued without any sanctioned plans.

It was not surprising when the civic agencies confessed that they did not even know the extent of illegal commercialisation in Delhi's wholesale trade hub. According to an older estimate though, the Walled City, home to only about 2% of Delhi's population, accommodated 60% of Delhi's wholesale trade, 25% of retail trade and 28% informal trade and services.

Shahjahanabad is one of the India's oldest living cities. But just walk through the area and you will know how civic infrastructure has simply collapsed here. Roads have caved in. Electric wires hang precariously and are the most common cause of fires. Hundreds of dilapidated buildings have become death traps with dangerous cracks. In many katras, hazardous industrial units run in blind alleys.

The idea of urban renewal of Shahjahanabad is as old as the Master Plan itself. The first Master Plan of 1962 gave authorities 20 years to redevelop the Walled City. But the only time two old city pockets — Dujana House (near Jama Masjid) and Turkman Gate — were redeveloped was during the Emergency in 1975.

Each time a tragedy hits, a new plan is proposed. In 1999 when a fire killed 57 people in the Lal Kuan chemical market, a relocation plan was rustled up and the chemical traders were asked to move out to Holambi Kalan in the outskirts of Delhi. In 2006, the paper merchants of Chawri Bazar were told to relocate to Ghazipur. But other than the flower market that shifted from Fatehpuri, all the markets have stayed put.

The Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan promised a cleaner skyline (by tucking away overhead cables), cobbled roads like those in Prague, twinkling street lights a la Paris, vehicle-free roads and ample parking space. It has been inaugurated twice since 2005 but could not take off for the want of Rs. 55 crore — a short change for the government that builds one flyover after another, each costing three times as much.

The bigger plan of strengthening old buildings is stuck in paperwork. Structural safety is a major concern in high seismic zones and yet house collapse kills more people than any other disaster in Delhi. Anyone who has ever tried to move a brick in her house would know how quickly the cops and babus turn up anticipating bribes. But we are to believe that the illegal warehouse construction that killed five children just 250 metres from the local police station went on under those radars.