These days, motor vehicles, rickshaws and pedestrians have a tough time navigating the 1.5-km stretch from Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Workers have been digging trenches along the road since December 6 as part of the Aam Aadmi Party government’s Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan.

The project, scheduled to be completed by January 2020 at an estimated cost of Rs 65 crore, mostly involves decongesting the area’s skyline, an unwieldy clutter of electric and telephone wires. “We are going to lay all electrical wiring in these trenches,” said Pankaj Kumar, a project supervisor.

Historians say a canal ran the length of this road when Chandni Chowk was laid out by the 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Its clear water reflected moonlight, lending the place a stunning air and its name, Moonlight Square. The redevelopment plan does not aim to revive the old canal. Instead, the trenches will form a 3.5-metre wide central verge housing electric transformers, police booths and toilets.

But conservation experts are not impressed. “Today, Chandni Chowk is a mess,” said AGK Menon, former convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage who drafted the aborted proposal to nominate Delhi for UNESCO’s World Heritage City tag. “But when we say redevelopment, we mean what exists should be upgraded and the area should not lose its character. This does not mean that we are anti-development as conservation is also development.”

He pointed out that the proposed central verge will split Chandni Chowk into two parts. “With the transformers, police booths, toilets you will not be able to see the other side of the street,” Menon explained. “It will act as a wall.”

The project has also run into trouble with the Delhi Urban Art Commission, which is required to have approved it. But a senior official at the commission claimed they did not receive any proposal about redeveloping Chandni Chowk from the government. “We have no idea what is happening,” the official said. “We saw news reports about this and we sent a letter to the chief secretary a week ago. We are yet to receive any response.”

The authority is empowered by the Delhi Urban Art Commission Act, 1973 to approve, reject or modify any proposal for redevelopment of “historically sensitive areas” such as those around Jama Masjid, Red Fort and Qutub Minar.

“We have to check if the aesthetic of the plan matches that of the area,” the official explained. “We can’t allow them to dig up a road like this till we have checked the colours, textures and materials being used.” tried contacting Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who also heads the tourism ministry, Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation chairman Satyendar Jain, Chandni Chowk’s MP Harsh Vardhan and legislator Alka Lamba for comment, but none of them responded to calls or text messages.

An illustration of the Chandni Chowk Redevelopment Plan. Courtesy Delhi government

‘No motor vehicles during day’

Pradeep Sachdeva, the architect who designed the plan, said the central verge will have enough space to park 28 handcarts and house 23 transformers, six toilet units, three urinals, two water ATMs, three CCTV control rooms, and four police posts. Once the work is completed, the street will be open only to pedestrians from 9 am to 9 pm and non-motorised vehicles such as cycle rickshaws. “This is the most crucial aspect of the plan,” Sachdeva said.

Since reviving the Mughal canal is unfeasible, Sachdeva said, they have “symbolised it in the design by placing water-like patterns in the centre”. “We can’t look after water bodies,” he added. “In our previous projects such as Dilli Haat at INA and Emporium Complex in Connaught Place, we found that canals tend to get full of waste.”

The architect said they have already received permission to carry out the work from the Delhi Development Authority’s Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Centre. However, they have also received a letter from the Archaeological Survey of India saying “we needed their permission”. “But it does not appear so because we are not building anything,” Sachdeva said. “We may also have received a letter from the Delhi Urban Art Commission about this, but I am not sure about the details.”

‘Chandni Chowk’s image will change’

The historian Sohail Hashmi, who conducts heritage walks in Old Delhi, disapproves of the plan because it does not involve the local people. “This is only being done keeping in mind the tourist experience,” he said. “What about the old shops and havelis? The plan does not include restoring those elements.”

Chandni Chowk was built as a residential enclave for up to three lakh people, Hashmi pointed out. “Today, it has become a space for wholesale trade,” he added. “When this city was designed, there were no trams. It was designed for people to walk or for palanquins to pass. Now it has become a market for eight states selling hardware, spices and grains.”

Kanchi Kohli, who studies environment regulation at the Centre for Policy Research, argued that the plan “raises larger questions about what implications it could have”. “If the road is only for pedestrians, how is it linked to larger public transport plans?” she asked. “There is need for more transparency and public participation. AAP has held up these aspects as the hallmarks of their government, so they should have a systematic approach to having a public discourse.”

From a heritage perspective, the proposed central verge will be detrimental to Chandni Chowk’s aesthetic appeal, said Swapna Liddle, convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Delhi. “It is definitely important to have underground wiring but it will be difficult to reimagine what Chandni Chowk looked like earlier,” she explained. “The canal cannot be revived because, surely, water bodies are difficult to maintain. But how do we design this to delineate where it was?”

In any case, Liddle argued, Chandni Chowk needs regulation more than a redesign. “It is more commercial today,” she said. “The character of the place has completely changed. We need to see how redevelopment can create a balance. For instance, what will the regulation be to stop encroachments on the pedestrian space? It is a matter of control.”

Menon agreed with Liddle that the central verge is the “least desirable aspect” of the plan. “It will completely change the image of Chandni Chowk,” he said. “It’s an iconic, historic area. This is state-sponsored vandalism. In my opinion, doing nothing is a better alternative than desecration.”