Chandni Chowk revamp: Why have they mindlessly used sandstone?

Historian-Filmmaker Sohail Hashmi frowns at the way the historic Chandni Chowk has been revamped. The entire work is totally disconnected from area's history and heritage, he says

NH Photo by Vipin
NH Photo by Vipin

Mohd Asim Khan

Redevelopment of the 1.3 km stretch from the Red Fort at one end and Fatehpuri Masjid at the other is complete. The attempt to impress ‘foreign tourists’, however, has left residents and historians disappointed. The ‘mindless exercise’ has merely enriched contractors and suppliers of sandstone and granite, they say. Mohd Asim Khan caught up with historian, writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi to find out more:

Sohail Hashmi
Sohail Hashmi

What do you make of the ‘redevelopment’ of Chandni Chowk?

Whatever renovation has been done has a disconnect with both history and heritage of Chandni Chowk. They have, for example, used sandstone and granite. Sand-stone was never used in Shahjahanabad and never on pavements. Cobbled stones again were never used in Chandni chowk. Then they have erected ugly pollards.

They have planted some plants, trees etc in the middle of the road, where actually there used to be a small canal. If you wanted to recapture part of that, then there should have been a water body. Ugly metal and glass facades are being put up on all the old buildings in the area. If you want to recapture the ambience of Chandni Chowk, then it must be stopped at once.

My primary objection though is that the old city is not just Chandni Chowk, which is but a small part of Shahjahanabad. You have to make the city liveable for residents. Nothing has been done in this direction. You are just building a promenade in the hope that foreign tourists will come and will be impressed.

On the streets and alleys, one can see overhanging wires. Nothing has changed in the old city. But what you have done is this strange construction…I don’t know whose idea this was.

The stretch is a pedestrian zone now…

Yes, motorised vehicles are not allowed during the day time and the street has been converted into a pedestrian zone, which is fine. But every night trucks will still be allowed to bring supplies and carry goods. The delicate sandstone pavements will be ruined, I guess. The broad walking pavement is nice but there should have been benches under shades where people could sit, rest and enjoy the ambience.

Why do people/tourists come to Chandni Chowk? Obviously, they don’t come here for shopping. They primarily come to see the ambience of an old city. But that ambience is being destroyed. Glass facades, malls etc are being built. It is a very, very shoddy job.

How could it have been handled better?

The government should have involved historians of the city, people like prof Narayani Gupta, A.G.K. Menon and Swapna Liddle. But none of them was consulted.

They have mindlessly expended so much sandstone here. I am surprised at sandstone being used with such abandon across Delhi. They have used sandstone in Connaught Place where it was never there, they have put it at India Gate C-Hexagon and also on Shahjahan Road. Why? Sandstone does not belong to Delhi. When all these pavements were built, the Delhi quartz, which is found in the Aravallis, was used. Why not use that? Delhi quartz is a much stronger stone and can withstand heavy traffic. Sandstone can’t. Also, in Chandni Chowk granite is being used. Why on earth are you bringing granite all the way from South India? What’s wrong with using the local Delhi stone?

Should the wholesale cloth market be removed from Chandni Chowk?

Well, the katras in Chandni Chowk have always been wholesale markets of cloth. What you have to remove is the wholesale grain market and the masala grinding factories in Khari Baoli, and most importantly the wholesale hardware, metal and paper market in Chawri Bazaar. They have no business to be in the city. If you want to save Shahjahanabad and make it into a heritage city, these wholesale markets must go. All these shop-keepers have been allotted space on Pankha Road and elsewhere. They should be asked to shift there. At best they can keep an office here.

The walled city never had more than three to four lakh people living inside. So, markets needed to cater to this population alone should be there, nothing else. Then only you will be able to save the old havelis. Almost every haveli has bene turned into a godown by these wholesale traders.

Why is it important to preserve our heritage?

Our heritage defines us, it informs the world about our life, our eating habits, our preferences for food, the kind of houses we built, the kind of houses we lived in. The least they could have done is consult some historians. But bureaucrats think they know everything. There are several heritage cities in the world. These bureaucrats should have gone and seen how these cities have been preserved. You will not find one glass-fronted house/ building in those cities. The buildings are as they were in the 15th or 16th century and so on. But bureaucrats are reinventing the wheel without seeing anything or going anywhere.

In 1961, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) declared all of the walled city as a slum area and it was placed under the Slum & JJ Wing of DDA. It was then that the term Walled City began to be used. So, the process of finishing off the heritage began in 1961.

Is it bias or indifference towards Muslim heritage which reflects in the administrative apathy towards Old Delhi?

Delhi was never a Muslim city. At most there was 35 percent of Muslim population. Now, the well to do Hindu population has moved out. They have moved to South Delhi and Gurgaon etc. Those who continue to stay, those who are doomed to stay are Muslims and Dalits who have no place to go because they don’t have the resources. Among the Muslims, the majority doesn’t have resources, and even those who have the means cannot buy properties or take houses on rent in other parts of the city because no one will sell or rent the houses to them.

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