Delhi’s revamped Chandni Chowk holds different meanings for its many residents
Rida Ansari , a resident of Ballimaran in the walled city is a diabetic. Her doctor recommended an hour’s daily walk , but she failed to follow his advice for years because she says, she had no place to walk in the congested old Delhi. But two months back, she decided to explore if she could go for a walk in the revamped Chandni Chowk. Now, every day the 48-year old, can be seen taking a stroll both in the morning and the night , along with her friends, in the redeveloped Mughal-era market .
“These regular walks have made a great difference to my life. Earlier I was just confined to my home the whole day and felt suffocated, now I feel better mentally and physically. You have to have lived in the walled city to understand what the revamped Chandi Chowk means to hundreds of women like me here,” says Ansari.
But Anil Pershad, 77, whose family has lived in Chandni Chowk for over 175 years in Chunnamal haveli, the most famous residence in the walled city today, says that the 9am to 9pm ban on motorised vehicles has only complicated life for him and his family. “There should have been a provision for parking for at least the residents of Chandni Chowk. I have a knee problem and it is unfair to expect me to first walk and then hop onto a cycle rickshaw every time I need to venture out of my home,” says an agitated Pershad, sitting in the grand high-ceilinged drawing-room of his haveli.
The redeveloped Chandni Chowk, which was inaugurated by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on September 12, mean different things to different residents of the walled city. There are hundreds of people living in the congested old Delhi, who say that revamped Chandni Chowk has changed their lives for the better. Every day close to mid-night , it is festival-like atmosphere in the market, with hundreds of men, women and children, all locals, taking a stroll, cycling, playing badminton, having leisurely conversations over ice creams. But then there are many others like Pershad also who feel that redeveloped Chandni Chowk has only added to their problems.
Pershad’s daughter-in-law describes the revamped Chandni Chowk as a “theatre of the absurd”, its cast of characters changing throughout the day. “Early in the morning, you can see children skating on the broad footpath in front of our house; around 9am there is a scramble among the vehicles to move out. Around noon shopkeepers and shoppers take over. In the night, you can see a lot of vehicles parked on the roads and labourers sleeping on the new footpaths, ” says Swetcha Pershad, a life coach, standing in the balcony of her grand haveli, pointing to the spot where children come for skating—and where the labourers sleep in the night.
In fact, one can also see children skating on a stretch near Ballimaran and quite a few cyclists too in the middle of the night. “ Earlier, we would cycling at Rajghat with friends, now many prefer Chandni Chowk, ” says Abdullah Saad , 24, a local resident. Our conversation is interrupted by a loud squeal from a group of children playing badminton on the footpath, their mothers engaged in conversation.
Muhammad Naeem, a local resident and civil society leader, says the walled city has been a ‘disabled city’ because of the absence of any civic infrastructure, and the redevelopment of Chandni Chowk, has given the residents a reason to cheer. “While revamped Chandni Chowk has not solved most of our problems, it has given people here a bit of reprieve from the claustrophobia of the congested lanes they live in. Lakhs of people sold their homes and left the walled city over the years because of the chaos created by crass commercialization and unauthorized construction,” says Naeem.
In the 1980s, many residents started leaving the walled city areas such as Sitaram Bazar, Nai Sarak, and Chandni Chowk. “Those who were rich moved to Civil Lines; others moved to Patparganj, and Daryaganj and other places,” says Ashok Mathur, a walled city resident, who lives in his ancestral haveli on Nai Sarak.
Mathur says that the walled city has witnessed a big demographic shift over the decades. “Those who came here in the 1940s post- Partition integrated well with local culture. But most of those who bought their houses here in the past three decades only had commercial objectives, and no interest in preserving the heritage and culture of the walled city,” he says.
Sudhir Nigam who left his ancestral house in Sitaram Bazar in 2016, agrees. Old havelis and houses, he says, have been destroyed to make flats, godowns and shops, without caring for provisions such as lack of parking space. “ The builders are irreversibly changing the character of the place. We left because of the chaos caused by crass commercialization,” says Nigam, who shifted to Indirapuram in Ghaziabad. He recently visited Chandni Chowk after many months. “ It was quite an experience walking in the middle of Chandni Chowk without worrying about being hit by vehicle. But I am not sure if this change is enough to stop the exodus of old residents or bring back those who left, ” he says.
Abu Sufiyan , a local who runs, Purani Dilli Walon Ki Baatein, a digital platform, which has over 200,000 followers and aims to tell lesser-known stories about the walled city, its people and culture, says that being able to walk leisurely in the redeveloped Chandni Chowk offer many hidden benefits.
“In the past couple of months while walking in Chandni Chowk I have discovered some buildings with heritage facades that I never spotted before. Earlier, the maddening traffic chaos here did not allow that , ” says Sufiyan. “I think revamped Chandni Chowk will lead to a better appreciation of the walled city’s heritage and a desire to preserve it. Already, many local youngsters are planning to open cafes with interiors in sync with the heritage of the walled city.”
Mathur says he would like to wait and watch before commenting on the impact of the revamped Chandni Chowk’s on local residents’ lives. “It has certainly given breathing space to people, but it is too early to assess its real impact. I hope that traffic in internal roads such as Nai Sarak and Ballimaran is not barred permanently. It will cause a lot of hardships to the residents,” he says.