“(The street) well worth a wander simply to take in the sights and smells because things have changed little here for centuries…”— The Lonely Planet Guide on Khari Baoli, Asia's Biggest Spice Market located on the western fringe of the walled city.
What the walled city once had is an intangible something that steeps the great cities of the world - London, Rome, Cairo: atmosphere.
But three centuries after it was founded, its quirks and quaintness — the elements that give it soul and make it a potential tourists’ haven — are being beaten out of Shahjahan's Dilli.
“Shahjahanabad has been highjacked by squatters, drug addicts and touts,” says 85-year-old Digraj Tiberiwal, a resident of Nai Sarak.
The area’s intricately engineered network of bylanes — that reared up as a navigational challenge for the British cavalry during the mutiny of 1857 — is today devoured by potholes, filth and an unregulated maze of human traffic.
“It's a far cry from where I grew up. Khari Baoli used to attract visitors from the world over. But it has lost its charm because lack of civic amenities.”
Market associations active in the walled city estimate the total tourist traffic in the area at around 50,000 visitors per day.
“While a major chunk of them are domestic tourists, at least 5,000 to 7,000 international tourists start making their way into the market as soon as shops start opening, which is as early as seven am daily,” says Sanjay Bhargava, general secretary, Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal.
Agrees Rajiv Batra, president, Khari Baoli Sarv Vyapar Mandal.
“Every day, I meet dozens of tourists who visit the area after having watched documentaries praising its historical legacy. They know that any trip — not only to Delhi, but to the country itself — isn't complete if one hasn't visited the bylanes of Shahjahanabad.”
But the decades over which the area has been shunned by successive governments seem to have had their toll on tourism, too.
According to Manoj Sharma (35), a private taxi operator-cum-travel agent from Karol Bagh, “Five years ago, nine out of ten foreign tourists landing in the capital wanted to visit Chandni Chowk. But now, many drop the idea as soon as they see how congested and dirty the area is: something visible even as one drives past the Red Fort.”
And those who do decide to explore it, have nothing but nightmares to relate.
“In March, some of my friends from Berlin were on a tour of India so I took them to Khari Baoli,” says 28-year-old Lisa (who goes by her first name only).
Hailing from Germany, Lisa has been in Delhi since November 2009 and counts Chandni Chowk among her favourite destinations - despite the rude shock she received as she guided her friends through the spice market.
“As we made our way through the jam-packed street, someone groped me, but I hit back. I couldn't help but feel humiliated.”
Authorities claim amenities that have not been in place for six decades will be there in six months.
“Well in time before the Commonwealth Games, we will be coming up with facilities such as exclusive hop-on-and-off buses, a bed and breakfast scheme for the various havelis in the area in addition to providing maps and literature about the area,” says Rina Ray, tourism secretary, Delhi.
Sagar Preet Hooda DCP (north) said, “The general security in the area has already been beefed up. We have been cracking down on street crime and will be more vigilant during the event."
Despite similar failed reassurances assurance over the decades, hope still flickers in a pair of old eyes.
“It was and always will be the heart of Delhi. The administration might have left it behind, but how can we?" says Tiberiwal, letting a sher from Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq to express the rest: “In dinon garche dakan mein hai bari qadr-i-sukhan…kaun jae Zauq par Dilli ki galiyan chhor kar.”
(The streets may be bereft of artists and poets today…But still - who can leave, Oh Zauq, the lanes of Dilli behind?).
Case Study Annapurna
‘Our govts did the damage the British could not’
As a child, Shishir Kanti Mukherjee (61) who runs the Annapurna Bhandar at the Bhai Mati Dass chowk in Chandni Chowk, felt proud of his grandfather's decision to migrate to the country's new capital in 1929.
“The old city became a new land of opportunity for many young men like my grandfather, Mohini Mohun Mukherjee, as soon as the British shifted their capital from Calcutta.”(The capital was shifted in 1911.)
Like children of other businessmen in the area, Mukherjee had learnt the bylanes of the walled city much before he started operating the family's traditional Bengali sweets business.
“Even after the British constructed a new city for themselves - this area remained the heart of Delhi. But the damage the British couldn't do, the government seems intent on doing,” says Mukherjee.
He said there was no justification for renovating the rest of the city while Shahjahanabad was left for dead.
“We get more tourists than CP, so why shouldn't façade renovation be taken up here as well?” Mukherjee feels renovation work has been long overdue.
“What will foreigners say when they see swanky buildings in south Delhi and compare them with dilapidated ones here? -Jatin Anand
Hampered by lawlessness
Sushant Jain (34), who now runs the two-century-old Ghantewala Sweets Shop feels traffic mismanagement, touts and pick-pockets have made the ancient market a nightmare for shoppers.
“There used to be a time when no marriage would be complete without a visit to Chandni Chowk. However, touts, beggars and petty criminals are now eating away at its historical roots; this is no longer the family shopping place that it used to be,” he said.
According to Sharma, hundreds of customers across backgrounds used to visit it on a daily basis.
“But with swanky malls coming-up all over the city, we don't get any new customers now. After all - our food may be economical, but customers are driven away due lack of law and order.”
He feels crime has kept bigger brands from entering the ancient market.
“We are still here because we are faithful to land and the people who made our fortune. But the network of touts and drug addicts who indulge in petty crime in the area is so vast that bigger brands have simply refused to enter the market. -Jatin Anand
Case Study Natraj Dahi Bhalla
Haunted by the same problem since 1940
Three generations down the line, the Sharma family that has been operating the Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner in Chandni Chowk since 1940, is yet to find a solution to their waste management problem.
“Like me, even my grandfather's biggest problem was the disposal of the hundreds of used paper plates that the shop would generate during the course of a single day,” says Jitin Sharma (35).
He says he was amazed at how long the government could procrastinate when it came to creating a proper waste disposal mechanism for the biggest commercial complex in north Delhi.
“The whole old city area has been renowned for the quality of its food since the Mughal era. There are innumerable small and big shops that generate an inestimable amount of waste on a daily basis. Despite this, there is no proper mechanism for its disposal.”
Sharma says the lack of a waste disposal mechanism is affecting the area, commercially and environmentally.
“Most shopkeepers just throw their garbage wherever they like - seriously damaging the area environmentally and reducing its visual appeal."
"While most of our customers are used to that sort of filth lying around in the area - what about new customers?”
Why are we not entitled to a better life?
I am a resident of Chiltli Qabar, Jama Masjid. Are we, the people living near Jama Masjid, not entitled to any amenities? We also pay taxes, electricity, water and telephone bills like the people of south Delhi, then why the indifference towards us? Why don’t the government and media come to Matia Mahal and see how the beggars have created a menace here? Our CM Shiela Dikshit is talking about the development of Delhi and getting rid of the beggars in New Delhi only. Come and see the encroachment near Jama Masjid, how neglected roads are, and what the cleanliness level is.
— Mehjabeen Malik, near Jama Masjid
Heritage hijacked by land mafia
The government’s apathy towards the walled city is an insult to cultural heritage. One reason for the decay of Old Delhi is too much illegal constructions and mafia-built construction. MCD officials are often found giving false promises for the betterment of work. Steps must be taken to sustain the original beauty of Old Delhi and the government must take strict action against those who are involved in illegal constructions including mafia.
— Aditya Nagar, Delhi