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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Shahjahan’s decaying city chokes with people, pollution
By Hussain K

New Delhi: This is the city where Emperor Shahjahan lived, with the street where his chariot rolled, the fort where he held darbar. Shahjahan built the magnificent seventh city of Delhi on the bank of Yamuna in 1639. With a master plan that almost belongs to modern age, the city was divided into separate zones for industry, commerce, and human habitation. It was the most well-planned city with carefully laid out gardens, mosques, schools and markets.

However, due to negligence of modern rulers, the city has been reduced to a dirty slum, crammed with people and housing thousands of hazardous industrial units.

When the city was built , there were clearly demarcated areas for doctors, gardeners, washermen and barbers called Baidwara, Maliwara, Dhobiwara and Naiwara respectively.

There were distinct spaces for different classes of traders and craftsmen, known as katras. They were exclusive residential-cum-shopping centres. Streets were named according to topographical features, occupations, and after famous persons or trades.

Havelies or chattas were built for rich people and were large houses or mansions. Each chatta was a self-contained colony. Chowk was another interesting feature of the city, and it had a definite boundary and served as the centre of activity. Mohalla was a well defined area of residential and commercial activity. Generally a mohalla contained its own school, bazaar, mosque or temple.

Today the city has changed beyond recognition and presents a dismal picture. Jagmohan’s book Rebuilding Shahjahanabad describes the sorry state of the city. Now the entire old Delhi is a slum. Since the cost of land is so high here, illegal construction is rampant and buildings are coming up overnight without much regard to rules and regulations.
The city has become a safe abode for speculators, land mafia and vandals. Low rentals attract thousands of labourers and poor people to this area. Large number of families are crammed in galis in most unhygienic conditions.

The area has around 3,000 metal industries, 6,000 nickel polishing factories and 3,000 printing presses. The resultant pollution is a threat to people’s well-being.
There are 616 katras, 260 kuchas,193 kachchi bastis and 87 pakki bastis, and 274 mixed ones, with no proper ventilation, drainage or sewer lines. Bundles of goods containing inflammable materials and electricity wires dangerously hanging overhead cause recurrent fire.
Crammed with 16,000 unlicensed rickshaws, 3,000 unlicensed rehras, 95,000 unauthorised factories, 14,000 weekly tehbazari (pavement shops), the dream city of Shahjahan has lost much of its charm.

The Muslim population living here for generations feels more secure because of old habit. There is not much pressure from these communities for the renewal of their city. Growing congestion, unplanned building activity and breakdown of civic infrastructure threatens this once beautiful city.

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