Scant space for social distance in Delhi’s congested walled city
Social distancing, a man living in Old Delhi says, is an oxymoron in old Delhi , which has a population of about 12 lakh crammed in an area of 6 square kilometres.Updated: Jul 13, 2020, 06:02 IST
Tell Khalil Ahmed that you want to come and visit him in the walled city and he will tell you to make sure you wear a PPE kit. “I am not saying it for myself; that is perhaps the only way for you to be safe here,” says Ahmed, who lives near Hauz Qazi, in old Delhi, which has always defied urban ideals of order.
Social distancing, he adds, is an oxymoron in old Delhi , which has a population of about 12 lakh crammed in an area of 6 square kilometres. “Besides, the walled city has some of the country’s biggest wholesale bazars, attracting thousands of people from all parts of country. Call it a lack of choice or education, but most people here no longer care about corona.”
World Health Organisation advises maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre (3 feet) from others to prevent contracting corona infection through droplets sprayed during speaking, coughing, sneezing, etc.
Ahmed is not exaggerating. Like ever before, roads and lanes around Jama Masjid and many other parts of the walled city are jammed, with pedestrians, rickshaws, e- rickshaws, carts, jostling for space, leaving little room for social distancing.
Not that no one is trying. There are announcements everyday on loudspeakers in many markets and mosques, exhorting people to maintain social distancing. “This is aimed at making people understand the dangers of Covid- 19 and how it is the religious duty of everyone to keep themselves and others safe,” says Abu Sufiyan, a resident of the walled city who runs, Purani Dilli Walon Ki Baatein, a well-known walled-city blog.
Sufiyan, who lives in Suiwalan, says while the walled city has opened, he tries to stay at home as much as possible, preferring to venture out only in the afternoons when the streets are comparatively less crowded. But finding those empty hours in the ever-bustling old Delhi is quite a challenge for those who are cautious of Covid-19.
Forget the capital’s politics and pollution, the population, they will tell you is the biggest problem here, its density breaching all acceptable limits. “There are houses with as many as ten families. So, even if a fraction of the population ventures out, its congested roads and lanes become so crowded,” says Sufiyan.
Another problem, many in Shahjahanabad , once a flourishing centre of art , culture, poetry, say, is that it has had its own socio-cultural mores, which have endured for over three centuries. “Everyone here has inherent sociability, and they are finding switching to social distancing pretty difficult,” says Mohammad Naeem, co-founder, Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library , who lives in Pahari Imli, near Choori Walan. “Used to abysmal lack of access to healthcare, people here have failed to appreciate the dangers posed by coronavirus. I believe that the government should set up a testing centre here.”
The story is no different in other parts of the walled city. Many people are changing their workdays and hours. Take , for example, Ankit Agarwal who lives in west Delhi and has office in Chawri Bazar. Unlike in the past, when Sunday was a holiday, he now chooses to go to his office on Sunday—the only day, when, he says, he has some chance of maintaining social distance in the walled city. “Social distancing is an idea, which faces a test everyday in the walled city. The problem is that a lot of people here are out on the roads without any purpose,” says Agarwal , who was born and bought up in the walled-city. “Surprisingly, even now people here do not want to miss their daily dose of samosa and Kachori. Just go and witness the scene around Chawri Bazar Metro Station.”
Well, Agarwal, is referring to the old Delhi tradition of breakfast congregations at confectionery shops, where one can catch whiff of steaming samosas and kachoris , with dozens of people crowding around food stalls. While the Metro station remains closed, the area around it retains its chaotic din, with labourers shopkeepers and shoppers going about their business.
And not all wear masks as they walk in close proximity in crowded streets. “Sometimes it is hard to breathe in the mask while pulling the cart. I feel suffocated,” says Rakesh Kumar, a daily- wage labourer. Ask him about ‘social distancing’, and he looks at you bewildered.
Dinesh Kumar Goyal, who runs one of the most famous camera shops in the Camera market in Chandni Chowk , says the walled city is a great leveller, and your socio-economic status does not make social distancing any easier. “ Here, everyone has to walk through the same crowded streets with all the attendant risks. Most people who live here do not have the choice of driving from home to office, because there are no parking spaces near their houses and cars have to be parked at Parade Ground at Red Ford, which could be a couple of kilometers away depending on where one lives in the walled city ,” says Goyal, adding that his business has taken a severe beating.
“Sales are down by 85 per cent as most of my customers are from outside the walled city, who do not want to come here because they believe it will be crowded and dangerous here , though Chandni Chowk is relatively less crowded these days than other markets in old Delhi.”
It is 8 pm, and Mohammad Naeem calls to say that he is returning to his home after performing namaz at Jama Masjid. He wants to show us what the scene is like in the evening around Jama Masjid, focusing his phone camera on the crowded road. He is walking in a zigzag motion, trying to maintain social distancing. “Even the most nimble of walkers cannot achieve this feat in this swarm of humans,” he says, ending the call.