Chandni Chowk cries for better amenities, infrastructure

New Delhi, April 19 (Inditop) “We will vote like every year”, is the resigned refrain of residents of Chandni Chowk in old Delhi. They are unhappy at how the historic walled city has degenerated into a congested, filthy place over the years.

“Even 50 years ago, Chandni Chowk was cleaner. There were fewer homes, shops and automobiles. The modes of transport were rickshaws and horse-drawn buggies (tangas). Today, we hardly have space to walk through the narrow streets with humans, cows, stray dogs, auto-rickshaws, cars and illegal vendors encroaching upon public space,” Ajmal Sher Alam, an 85-year-old shopkeeper who sells kebabs near the historic Jama Masjid, told IANS.

The city over the years, laments Alam, has degenerated into an urban slum, teeming with humans owing to unchecked influx of people, poor upkeep, shoddy conservation and bad maintenance by the civic authorities despite the fact it is still one of the most frequented heritage tourism destinations of the country.

Jama Masjid overlooks Chandni Chowk, the ancient city of Shahajanabad built in 1650 by Shah Jahan and designed by his daughter Jahanara Begum.

Alam’s shop, which began as a kiosk, has grown to a small concrete and asbestos shack in about six decades. “We have never seen brisk business, but too many people sell kebabs, biryani, mughlai cuisine along the streets. There has been no government patronage to turn the stretch surrounding Jama Masjid into a heritage zone retaining the flavour of Mughal life.” His grandchildren and their families have relocated to the Gulf, while his sons run the shop.

Every afternoon, Alam, with a few of his old friends, eat their frugal lunch on the steps of the mosque after prayers.

“We will vote like every year. But don’t tell us to name the party,” he said.

The Congress appears to have an edge. Union minister Kapil Sibal is the Congress candidate from Chandni Chowk. And his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opponent is Smriti Z. Irani, the TV star of the hit serial “Kyunki..” fame

Fifteen-year-old Syed, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, has just recovered from a water-borne strain of jaundice. “The quality of drinking water is bad. It is yellow and sometimes smells of chemicals,” the frail boy said.

Water supply, say residents, is erratic. Elections, feel the people of old Delhi, are just a democratic ritual. “The basic problems have not changed,” said Syed’s father, who came to pray at the mosque.

One of the major concerns of the traders’ fraternity of Chandni Chowk is the “government indifference” to sprucing up the old city. “Barring the Red Fort and the areas adjacent to it, not much has been done to make the rest of the walled city attractive to visitors,” said Maqbool Noor, the owner of a small textile shop in the erstwhile Meena Bazaar enclave next to the mosque.

The inflow of tourists to the mosque has also declined because of the filth surrounding the Jama Masjid. “There is no space to park vehicles and no public amenities,” Noor said. His business has taken a beating.

“But I guess, like everyone else, I will vote. I wish that government would do something like declaring the area around the mosque a protected site and develop it like the Taj Mahal so that we can make a living from heritage tourism,” he said.

Chandni Chowk has its quirks. A tea-stall owner, Balram Bari, for whom contesting polls is a passion, has been trying to project himself as a candidate again. The 43-year-old chaiwala has contested 14 Lok Sabha elections since 1989 when he fought against Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) chief J.P. Aggarwal.

He has tried his luck in every poll – from municipal polls and the assembly polls. “The coming election will be my 15th. Politics is a part of my life,” Bari said. Every election, he manages to gain the support of at least 100 voters.

The area is home to several small monuments and old Muslim havelis which include the Haskar Haveli at Bazaar Sitaram where Jawaharlal Nehru was married to Kamla Nehru in 1916 and Haveli Nharwali, where former Pakistani president Parvez Musharraf was born.

Chandni Chowk will decide the fate of its 15 candidates May 7. It has 337,462 electors and 415 polling stations.