Going to Old Delhi is easy but getting inside or coming out is a mammoth task that needs special skills. You need to be agile to be able to navigate your way through the maze of serpentine lanes, really quick to dodge past the reckless auto driver and be alert enough to look out for that odd bullock or horse cart that may knock you down.
After sweating it out for a while, you would realise you have moved barely a few metres. And if you are brave enough to take your car inside, you can only pray that it comes out in one piece.
The narrow lanes encroached by parked vehicles and roadside vendors, coupled with haphazard traffic, have turned what was once the route of Mughal emperors’ into a commuter’s nightmare today.
The heterogeneous nature of traffic in Chandni Chowk, Chawri Bazar and Sadar Bazar — cars, two-wheelers, commercial autorickshaws, cycle and battery-operated rickshaws and bullock and horse carts, all jostling for space at the same time — makes managing it very difficult for the traffic cops.
Mahinder Singh, associate professor in city planning at Buffalo University in the US , who has been studying the traffic situation in the Capital, especially in Old Delhi, said: “Chandni Chowk was built in 1650AD. Though the original plan was developed during the British era, not much has been done to alter the basic design as per growing urbanization. The lanes are not wide and the traffic movement in these narrow
roads creates a choc-a-bloc situation,” he said.
It is especially horrendous during festivals such as Dusshera, Diwali and Eid when the area turns into Jafar’s den from the famous fairy tale Alladdin — difficult to enter but once in, impossible to get out. The extra crowd spells chaos on the roads and the VIP movement does no good either.
Though the Delhi Metro has made the markets a lot more accessible and bridged the gap between the old and the new city, on the flip side, more and more shoppers are thronging the area, making the roads even more crowded with pedestrians. The footfall has shot up so much that it is an uphill task to walk from the Chandni Chowk metro station to the main market road.
“The traffic mess is constant all through the day. At times, I have joined groups of people standing by the road watching quarrels and arguments and sometimes even scuffles between pedestrians, motorcyclists and drivers,” Mehboob Khan, a resident of Chandni Chowk, said.
Ambulances and fire tenders are often seen trying to squeeze in between the crowded lanes. A minor spark often turns into a blaze because the tenders cannot reach the spot on time, he said.
Traffic police chief Muktesh Chander said that the present width of the main carriageway — the effective road space for vehicular movement — is 22 metres and that of the footpaths, on both sides, is 3.5 metres. This means the road is wide enough for smooth traffic flow.
The root causes
So what is that makes Old Delhi a congested space?
“There are three main issues in the area. The first is the mixed flow of traffic, which means that all modes from cars to two-wheelers, autos to cycle rickshaws, pedestrians and cyclists to goods carrying vehicles ply on the same road. The second is on-street parking, which occupies half of the carriageway. The third is encroachment of footpaths and walkways by shops and vendors, forcing pedestrians to walk on the roads,” Chander said.
Traffic officials often stand helplessly at intersections as vehicles violate all rules with impunity.
“Every policeman dreads being posted in Old Delhi. Vehicles come from anywhere and everywhere. The biggest problem is the cycle rickshaw and animal cart pullers. They do not follow the rules and slow down traffic movement,” said a traffic official deployed in Daryaganj.
The Chandni Chowk traffic unit deploys 23 traffic officials everyday at various traffic heavy intersections.
To improve the situation, the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Plan was drawn up in 2007. The plan prepared by architect Abhimanyu Dalal proposed an 8.5-metre carriageway with a designated lane for non-motorised rickshaws and cycles with restriction on motorised vehicles.
Walkways of 15 metres and eight metres were proposed for the easy and safe movement of pedestrians. But the plan is gathering dust on papers.
Traders’ associations had strongly opposed the plan, saying it was not possible to restrict the entry of motorised vehicles in the area as it would affect their business.
“We were never involved in making the plans. The plan was made by people sitting inside air-conditioned rooms. How do we load and unload our goods if the market is made a no-vehicle zone?” said Sanjay Prasad of the Chandni Chowk market association.
Recently, the Delhi government gave the go-ahead for the reintroduction of trams. It says trams will provide commuters a quick and easy mode of transport inside the Walled City and ease congestion in the area. The tram line will cover 4.3 kilometres and connect Chandni Chowk road, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Jain Mandir, Gurudwara Sis Ganj and the Old and New Delhi Railway stations.
“No motorised vehicles will be allowed to ply around the tram tracks. Cycle rickshaws will be allotted a designated zone,” the proposal read.