With all Afghanistan flights cut off, Delhi’s ‘Little Kabul’ takes a beating
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 15,559 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in India, and most of them are in Delhi.
Hashmat Pirzada runs Kabul Delhi Restaurant in a part of Lajpat Nagar 2, which in the past decade has become famous as ‘Little Kabul’.
The area got the sobriquet because of the presence of a large number of Afghan establishments — restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, and guest houses — most of which catered to Afghans, who travelled to Delhi for medical treatment, education, and business. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 15,559 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in India, and most of them are in Delhi. And before the takeover by the Taliban, India granted about 30,000 medical visas to Afghan nationals every year.
It is lunchtime on a sweltering July day, but the restaurant, which offers Afghan dishes such as kabab chopan, kabuli pulao, among others, is empty. Pirzada is inside the restaurant, whiling away the hours talking to an Afghan friend. “My business has dropped by 70% as there have hardly been any flights between the two countries in the past one year, ” says Pirzada. The restaurant, whose walls are decorated with framed old pictures of Afghan cities and Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan commander, is one of the oldest Afghan eateries in Delhi.
Kabul Delhi Restaurant is not the only one to have lost almost all its customers in the past year. The suspension of commercial flights between Delhi and Kabul last year after Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, has killed many Afghan businesses in Lajpat Nagar. Many Afghan shops are struggling to survive. “I have lost 99% of my business, and at this rate I will have to shut it soon,” says Muhibullah Bakhtani, who runs Muhib Chemist. He is one of the many Afghan nationals who run a chemist shop in the area.
His family of six — mother, two sisters and two brothers came to Delhi in 2009 because of the deteriorating security situation in his country.
“Yesterday, my total sale was ₹60. The rent for this shop is ₹1.10 lakh and I have been using my savings to pay it. The business was pretty good one year ago; but things completely changed for all businesses that catered to Afghan medical tourists, ” says Bakhtani. The street where his shop is located until last year buzzed with activity, with Afghan establishments open past midnight. Today it wears a deserted look.
“I had 19 employees until 2021; now I have one,” says Mohan Singh, who owns Afghan Delhi Pharmacy. His family hails from Afghanistan. The shop’s 15 sale counters, which were once always crowded today, are empty. “98% of my customers were the patients who came to India for treatment,” says Singh. Some of the first businesses on the street were established by Sikhs who came to Delhi from Afghanistan 2008. With the area becoming a hub of medical tourists, many Afghan nationals also started setting up shops here. “Indians hardly buy from us. Probably, they think that we sell only Afghan products, but most are made in India,” says Abdul Ghafoor, who runs the Afghan General Store.
Ghafoor Abbas Alawy , who runs one of the many travel agencies that catered primarily to Afghans, says that those who could afford travelled to India via Dubai. “Earlier, I would do about 10 bookings a day; now I do three to four in a week. But thankfully, the flights are resuming,” says Alawy. Last month, Afghan carrier Kam Air, which has its office in Lajpat Nagar 2, resumed a weekly Delhi- Kabul flight. Along with Air India and Ariana Afghan Airlines, which are yet to resume flights on Kabul- Delhi route, Kam Air had a daily flight from Kabul-Delhi before the Taliban’s takeover. A vast majority of passengers on these three daily Kabul-Delhi flights were patients coming to India for medical treatment.
Quite a lot of those who came to India on tourist visas lived in Kasturba Niketan, a leafy middle-class residential enclave in Lajpat Nagar, which before the Covid pandemic was home to hundreds of Afghans who came to India for long-term treatment. The business establishments, even those run by locals, have signboards in Afghanistan’s Dari language, which follows Perso- Arabic script. Until last year, a majority of the houses had floors rented out to Afghan nationals and their absence has hit not just Afghan nationals, but also locals.
“In the past decade, a lot of people came here to be dependent on rental income. Many house owners even moved out to rent out their houses to Afghans who came here for treatment. But these days there are no takers for these homes,” says a property dealer in the area, who does not wish to be named.
Mohammad Arif, an Afghan, set up a bread house in Kasturba Niketan four years ago. It has a gas furnace, a dough kneading machine, and large wooden trays to keep the kneaded dough. It is afternoon, and Arif is making Afghan naans. The heat inside the bread house is intense and he is perspiring profusely. “Earlier, I would make about 2,000 pieces of bread a day; most buyers were Afghan patients living here. Now, I barely sell 300 bread a day, and most of the buyers are a few people from countries such as Sudan, Iraq and Yemen, who live here,” says Arif.
But in Kasturba Niketan, very few people miss the Afghan medical tourists more than Mohammad Balil who sells mangoes door-to-door on a pushcart. “One year ago, my daily sales were around ₹10,000, and most of my customers were Afghan medical tourists who lived here. They never haggled over prices, and I made ₹3,500-4,000 a day. Now my sale is ₹3,000, and I barely make ₹1,000 a day. I hope they return soon.”