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Dying Old Delhi

The once so called the heaven, Delhi is now a city almost impossible to govern. Shahjahan, the emperor who once said about Delhi: Agar Firdaus barrue zamin ast/ Hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast! (If there is a heaven on this earth/ It is here, it is here, its is here!), must be tossing and turning in his mausoleum now! Aghast at its ghettoized culture, shocked at the catastrophic dimensions of its newly emerging class of saboteurs, and the spate of illegal and unauthorized encroachments and dangerous land and property use, Delhi has become a bottomless hell. Can its wrongs be redressed in the millennium? 

According to Jagmohan’s Rebuilding Shahajahanabad, Old Delhi presents a dismal picture of congestion, chaotic traffic and sub-human existence. Ninety per cent of Old Delhi is slum having noxious and obnoxious factories housed in 616 katras, 260 kuchas, 193 kachchi bastis and 87 pakki bastis and 274 mixed ones with no proper ventilation, drainage or sewer lines besides being messed up with fatally dangerous electricity wires hanging overheads that (being katra connection) cause recurrent fires. 

The communities living through generations may feel more secured and cohesive socially but they have remained to be poor in comparison to the people living in the extended areas. Besides, they are not articulate enough to have meaningful say in the major myriad activities related to the renewal of the traditional city. As a result, their living conditions continue to deteriorate and blight, filth and squalor are their plight. Bundles of goods containing inflammable material can be seen lying on foot paths blocking already narrow lanes. 

Old Delhi is now a heaven of shopkeepers --- some petty some rich. The Shahjahanabadi tehzeeb (mannerism) urbanity and sophistication are all part of stories written in books. The city is being given to the despoilers, speculators, land mafia and vandals. With about 16000 unlicensed cycle rickshaws, 3000 unlicensed rehras (handcarts), 95,000 unauthorized obnoxious factories, 140,000 weekly tehbazari (squatters) and 100,000 daily squatters and vendors, Delhi is sitting on dynamite to be fully blasted at any moment. Daily fires and crimes are just like timer that is clicking for the ultimate bursting away. Interestingly enough, there are more police stations in Old Delhi in comparison to New Delhi still unable to contain criminal activities. Police stations like Thana Hauz Qazi or Thana Chandni Mahal are most "profiting" assignments! Most of the illegal activities are carried at the connivance of the local police and politicians.

The walled city represents a fiendish picture in the sense that illegal constructions mushroom surreptitiously over night under the garb of repairs and renovations. One of the basic problems of the metropolitan city is the tendency of the Delhi’ites to build upon every possible open space even if it is at the risk of human life to eke out maximum advantage of the high cost of land in that area. Commercial interests dominate over human. 

As a consequence, the city is reduced to humdrum of brick and mortar breeding environmental and health hazards while strangulating human existence. The entire Old Delhi, notified as a slum, has areas earmarked for acquisition where rents are pegged to ridiculously low rent levels which attract poor from outside. While business and commerce become major ingredients of the economy of Old Delhi, yet another element of its economy is manufacturing with 3000 metal industries, 6,000 nickel polish factories, 3000 printing and publishing industries, and umpteen noxious industries including pen-clips, door hinges, plastic chappals etc.

The old Delhi city-scape is ruined. A new invasion of materialism, selfishness, greed, pettiness and intrigue has descended upon this once great city and we all seem to have been caught in its mute spectacle of silent march that Old Delhi has become. This is Shahjahan’s dream city! Can we save it or is it at the point of no return and no hope in the millennium to come? Or should we leave Old Delhi to its fate that such catastrophies are bound to occur? Saturation point has arrived and something must be done. Is someone listening?

¯ Firoz Bakht Ahmed

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