With its rich living and built heritage, the 377-year-old Shahjahanabad or Purani Dilli has been a precious lesson in history. But today, it is also a study in failed urban planning, a textbook case of how not to run a city.
What has gone wrong with Dilli-6 is what has gone wrong with Delhi in general. But within its walled ambit of 1,500 acres, all the problems of a growing capital - unstoppable migration, crowding, excess commercialisation and illegal construction - have been amplified manifold. It’s a big price to pay for being the heart of Delhi.
It is for a reason that the walled city is often clubbed with slums and unauthorised colonies in contemporary civic planning. At least, 75,000 people migrate to Delhi every year in search of livelihood. For the uneducated, unskilled poor, the entry point to the capital is usually the Old Delhi Railway station. Some find daily jobs as porters and rickshaw-pullers in the wholesale markets of the walled city. Others end up begging or selling knick knacks at traffic junctions.
Lack of affordable housing means most end up on the pavements. According to a 2010 survey by Institute of Human Development and the Delhi government, 25% of city’s homeless live in Central Delhi, that is, mostly in the walled city and areas around New Delhi Railway station. Except for a few unliveable night-shelters, they get no assistance from the government.
The civic collapse of the walled city is also of the worst kind. Residents and shopkeepers have constructed warehouses to stock dangerous chemicals and added floors to buildings that have weakened with age. This expansion has continued without any sanctioned plans.
The civic agencies confess that they do not even know the extent of illegal commercialisation in the walled city that is Delhi’s wholesale trade hub, and there is never enough staff to conduct door-to-door inspection of old, crumbling buildings.
According to an older estimate though, the Walled City, home to only about 2% of Delhi’s population, accommodates 60% of Delhi’s wholesale trade, 25% of retail trade and 28% informal trade and services. The streets of Dariba, Nai Sarak and Khari Baoli are chock-a-block with handcarts, rickshaws and rickety tempos. At night, the old buildings vibrate with the movement of trucks. It is also the only place in Delhi where one can experience a human traffic jam.
The first plan to decongest the walled city was commissioned in 1936 to the British officer AP Hume who recommended setting up of new areas to settle the “excess” population. But this was the time the British were focusing on developing their Imperial Capital in New Delhi, and Shahjahanabad was rejected as “old and a potential area of danger, insanitation and crime”, wrote city planner AK Jain in his book, Dillinama.
Post-independence, the first Master Plan of 1962 called the walled city “a slum” but gave the authorities 20 years to redevelop the area. To decongest, it proposed shifting out of 45% of its population, including the old wholesale markets.
Since 1962, Delhi formulated two more master plans. And each time a tragedy hits, there is a new proposal. In 1999 when a fire killed 57 people in the Lal Kuan chemical market, 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 stayed put.
Lately, there has been renewed interest to revive the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation that will undertake the cleaning and beautification of the walled city and re-introduce trams. But these changes would remain cosmetic unless there are concrete steps to tackle the pressures of congestion, migration, homelessness and urban poverty.
Moving some markets or warehouses out will not only free up some areas for basic civic provisioning, it could also disperse the migrant workers to other parts of the city. But the relocation plan must accompany equal employment opportunities for the workforce. They deserve access to basic government services, which will improve their living conditions.
It is time the rest of Delhi shares the burden of urbanisation. The walled city deserves some space to breathe.