Constant dialogue between stakeholders and agencies has ensured delicate balance between conservation of heritage and sustenance of existing commercial activity during the Chandni Chowk Redevelopment Project
Ek roz apni rooh se poocha, Dilli kya hai?, to yun jawab mein keh gaye: yeh duniya maano jism hai aur Dilli uski jaan (One day I asked my soul, What is Delhi?, it replied: suppose this world is a body, then Delhi is its essence).
The famous couplet by Urdu and Persian poet Asadullah Khan, better known as Mirza Ghalib, enshrines his love for what is now the Walled City — at the heart of which lies Chandni Chowk, one of the largest and oldest markets in India.
Built in the 17th Century, the market has undergone countless changes to accommodate more shops and people — all while retaining its historical character.
The latest iteration of modifications — proposals for which were floated nearly two decades ago but implemented only in 2018 — is being carried out under the Chandni Chowk Redevelopment Project. A 1.3-km stretch between Red Fort and Fatehpuri Masjid is being turned into a car-free zone, and beautified keeping the Mughal-era architectural style in mind.
The project is part of a larger redevelopment plan for the Walled City, which involves fixing up the Jama Masjid area; Daryaganj area, from Delhi Gate to Nukkad Faiz Bazar; Lothian Road, from Lothian Bridge to Kashmere Gate; and improvement of various connecting roads in the area such as Esplanade road, reads a detailed project report made in 2017.
The pedestrianisation project has been especially tough given the multitude of stakeholders and agencies involved.
Sanjay Bhargava, president of Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal (the local traders’ association), who has been closely involved with the project over the years, said: “It has been due to our efforts that this [the project] has finally happened.”
He stressed that the new face of the locality is not the consequence of any political intervention. Instead, it has been the culmination of years of petitioning and directions of the High Court. In particular, he highlighted the role played by Justices Ravindra Bhatt and S. Muralidhar, in monitoring the project and having brought it this far.
How it all started
In 1998, a festival to revive the cultural grandeur of Chandni Chowk (Moonlit Square) sparked enthusiasm to restore the area, said Mr. Bhargava.
As per details on the Delhi government website, proposals were floated to make streets pedestrian friendly and revive Chandni Chowk not just as a market street but a space for public gatherings and a centre for festivities.
A special purpose vehicle, Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC), was set up by former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in 2007. Though various politicians connected with the area such as BJP’s Vijay Goel and Congress’s Kapil Sibal attempted to kick-start the project (Mr. Sibal inaugurated a phase of the project in 2011), the work started only in December 2018 under the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.
At least 12 agencies are involved in the project apart from the traders’ body.
“The problem with heritage areas in the city is two-fold: there is extreme neglect of historical significance and civic amenities,” said Abhinandita Mathur, who grew up in Old Delhi and is an adviser to the Delhi government.
She added that in a city with many markets and a burgeoning population of migrant residents, the project has provided an opportunity to bridge the gap between the old and new residents of the Capital.
“We live in a city where every second building has heritage. There are layers of history that need to be taken care of and cherished but not many are aware of how to go about doing so. Given these circumstances, the project has opened up a possibility in the face of things which may seem irreversible. It may be a small road but it has opened up large possibilities. It has also re-established Chandni Chowk as an important part of Delhi,” she said.
“We have brainstormed about similar heritage locations in the city such as Mehrauli and some villages. This project will not only set an example for such sites in Delhi but across the subcontinent which hosts much heritage that needs to be preserved,” she added.
Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when he shifted his capital here from Agra, the Walled City was built around two key features: Red Fort and Jama Masjid, according to the Detailed Project Report (DPR). Chandni Chowk was an important road that connected the fort’s Lahori Gate to the city gates. It also hosted a system of canals that drew water from the Yamuna. It is said that the clear water in a canal running through the middle of Chandni Chowk reflected the moonlight, which gave the market its name.
The canals still line the area, and part of the redevelopment work reportedly involves desilting and relining them.
The Walled City was a centre of arts and craft, especially in ivory and miniatures, for a very long time. But after the 1857 war, the city went into a decline. Following the Partition, several refugee settlements mushroomed in the area and today is one of the most underdeveloped and densely populated parts of Delhi. Its mesh of overhead electric wires nearly block out the sky, the traffic jams are legendary, and the walls of heritage buildings crumble as the number of people continue to swell.
Despite this, Chandni Chowk continues to thrive, especially as a wholesale market and a tourist destination. The redevelopment is an effort to “help conserve its heritage and improve the quality of the public realm in the area”, reads the DPR.
The 1.3-km stretch between Red Fort and Fatehpuri Masjid is being turned into a vehicle-free zone (no vehicles will be allowed between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.) though non-motorised vehicles will be allowed.
There will be tree-lined footpaths on either side of the road as well as a wide central verge. There will also be seating space for visitors.
Most of the work is being done in red sandstone, keeping the Mughal-era architectural style in mind. LED streetlighting is also a part of the plan.
All overhead wires have been taken underground and sewer lines have been rehabilitated.
There will be four parking areas for traders and visitors who come by vehicle. Most people come to the market via metro; there are two stations (Lal Quila and Chandni Chowk) that cater to the area, said Mr. Bhargava.
Redevelopment has been carried out till Sis Ganj Gurdwara; instead of a canopy of wires and congested roads, visitors are greeted by large open pathways lined with sandstone and bollards.
The stretch ahead of the gurdwara, however, turns into a veritable obstacle course as construction work is on in full swing. Construction material is strewn on the sides of the dug up road with iron rods, stones, and open electrical boxes everywhere.
At Nai Sarak, which connects Chandni Chowk to Chawri Bazar, a large section of the road is dug up. The Nai Sarak Road has been blocked off and is jam packed with two-wheelers taking up space behind the barricades for parking. A familiar web of overhead wires criss-cross this place.
The project was scheduled to be completed by March 2020. With the COVID-19 outbreak as well as other delays, the government now expects to finish the project by November.
Government sources, however, said the work might go on till December.
Gautam Sachdeva, who had been part of the architectural firm in-charge of the project, headed by the late Pradeep Sachdeva, said that the main intention of the project was to make it pedestrian-friendly, with a future-oriented vision of making space for non-motorised transport. Apart from surface changes, electric wires, telecom, gas lines, drainage systems have been carefully set under the pathway.
While negotiations had to take place between nearly 24 stakeholders, the original vision for redevelopment remained mostly intact, he said. Many had raised the hopes of being able to see Red Fort from one end of the road. Mr. Sachdeva argued that at the end of the day a “logical approach” had to be taken and that it was simply not feasible to be “lost in the poetry” of it.
Critics, however, argued that historically, the street was a grand processional avenue and as such the redevelopment ought to have adhered to this in its design.
Once the development is complete, Mr. Sachdeva hopes more visitors will flock to the area.
Architect and conservationist A.G.K. Menon, who had raised objections to some of the redevelopment proposals in 2018, admitted that it was remarkable that the work had been pulled off and that “a good project had been executed”.
Two lessons have been learned from the exercise, said Mr. Menon. One, historical areas, especially those in a dilapidated condition, have to be redeveloped, “but the intervention has to be of a certain kind”. And two, projects must evolve through dialogue and participation of various stakeholders; unlike in other redevelopment projects, such as the Central Vista plan which was being pushed through without consultations, he said.
Following a petition filed in the High Court by Mr. Menon and other conservationists, which led to further interventions by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (which has been involved in different parts of the project), various transformers, public toilets and police chowkis set up in the area, especially on the central verge of Chandni Chowk, were moved to ensure aesthetic integrity.
The height of a multilevel parking facility being built by the North Corporation at Gandhi Maidan was also kept in check for similar reasons. Following intervention, the number of transformers in the area were reduced from 18 to single digit, said Mr. Menon.
The petition filed by heritage conservationists had thrown a spanner in the construction, with complaints flooding in about the project being delayed further. Mr. Menon, however, argued that experts should have been consulted earlier to avoid such a situation, especially in a place like Chandni Chowk, which was demarcated as a heritage zone according to the master plan.
Seventy-year-old Ajit Yadav, whose family has been based in Haider Kuli Haveli area near Fatehpuri Masjid for 150 years after migrating from Alwar in Rajasthan, said this was the first time “any major work” had been taken up in the area.
Mr. Yadav hopes the revamp will bring more business, visitors and tourists. He is also hoping that old neighbours and friends, who had left the area, return.
“There is no place in the city more significant than Chandni Chowk, whether in terms of heritage or commercial activity. Once this project is complete, people will come to see the area in all its glory. As and when things in the area improve, who knows, maybe all those people who had left the area long ago due to civic issues, will decide to come back too,” said Mr. Yadav, pradhan of the Sarvodaya Samiti RWA, Haveli Haider Kuli.
“Just half of the work has been done so far, but wherever it has been done there was no waterlogging. This is not only the first time that any work, especially of this scale, has been taken up in Chandni Chowk but also the first time that there was no waterlogging in the area during monsoon as far as I can remember,” he said.
Mohammad Nafees (57), a resident of Lal Kuan, said the project is more than welcome as it has opened up the possibility of families going out on morning and evening strolls in the area — something unimaginable since his childhood.
The stretch has the distinction of hosting places of worship of four major religions practised in the country.
“This is the first time that such work has been taken up since I was born. It will not only give locals an opportunity to experience the area’s historic glory; but visitors can also visit a mandir, mosque, gurdwara and church — all walking distance from each other,” he said.
“What we are also looking forward to is the construction of a mall as part of the project. We will no longer need to visit malls far from home. All this is subject to maintenance of the new infrastructure and facilities. Everyone, especially the residents, will have to understand that they are equal stakeholders and need to work on maintenance together,” he added.
Mukesh Kumar, a rickshaw puller, said he was looking forward to more on the redeveloped stretch.
“I have been here for 50 years and never thought that anything could improve, especially at this scale. I know the area enough to say that this will bring in more tourists and business, which will help us all. That is certainly something to look forward to after how badly everything was affected due to COVID-19,” he said.
Dheeraj Dubey, a resident of Novelty Cinema area who operates a computer store, however, said the pedestrianisation of the area would eventually lead to problems.
“What about the mobility of senior citizens and movement of schoolchildren? There should be provisions for them. After the redevelopment is complete, there will be a need to ensure that there is proper maintenance of what has been created, not only for our sakes but also that of future generations,” he said.