One of the talking points that is likely to feature prominently in the general election campaign in Delhi is the shuttering of illegal commercial spaces. The “sealing drive”, as it is called, was first launched on the Supreme Court’s order in 2006 but the latest round began in December 2017. By January 31, 2019, according to The Indian Express, at least 10,533 commercial units had been shut down.

The sealing was done by Delhi’s municipal corporations, all three of which are run by the Bharatiya Janata Party. So it’s believed the party will face much of the trading community’s anger at the drive. Indeed, several traders spoke to said the “sealing issue” could harm the BJP the most since traders have traditionally been among the saffron party’s most loyal supporters.

The matter has also caused a rift in the Delhi BJP, with a section of the party criticising the leadership for failing to find a solution to the traders’ problem.

Publicly, though, the party has sought to wash its hands of the matter by blaming the ruling AAP. “Had they amended the Delhi master plan, there wouldn’t have been any sealing,” said Rajesh Bhatia, general secretary of the Delhi BJP. “I do not think people will fall for AAP’s outreach to traders.”

He was referring to AAP making the sealing drive a major campaign issue. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has already met representatives of traders’ bodies and linked the sealing drive to his party’s demand for full statehood. Not to be left behind, the Congress has promised to “deseal” the shuttered establishments within 10 days if voted to power.

Delhi votes in the penultimate phase of the election on May 12.

We love opinions — of the folks on the street. You’ll find us there. If you like our work, do consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+

The sealing drive

In 2006, the Supreme Court set up a monitoring committee to identify for shuttering unauthorised commercial establishments functioning in residential colonies. This led to widespread protests by traders, but the sealing drive continued until January 2012, when Sheila Dikshit’s government halted it by bringing in the Delhi Master Plan 2021, which sought to regularise some of the city’s illegal colonies and properties. It was aimed at “guiding the sustainable planned development of the city”, and would be “the basis for all infrastructure requirements”.

In December 2017, the top court pulled up the Aam Aadmi Party government, Delhi’s civic bodies and the Delhi Development Authority, the city’s land and housing agency headed by the lieutenant governor, for failing to check unauthorised construction. It also asked the monitoring committee to resume its work, and sealing of commercial properties that allegedly violated the master plan norms began promptly, especially in Meharchand Market, Khan Market, Defence Colony, Karol Bagh, Hauz Khas, Vasant Kunj and Chhatarpur.

In protest, traders’ bodies organised a rally in February 2018. They demanded that the central government promulgate an ordinance to immediately stop the exercise.

The same month, according to The Hindu, the Delhi Development Authority amended the master plan to enable “local” commercial establishments to be regularised and thus desealed. But the monitoring committee rejected applications for desealing on the grounds that the matter was in court.

In September 2018, the Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari for allegedly breaking the lock on a property sealed by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation. Though the contempt proceedings were later dropped, the court said it was “pained by the machismo and manner of Tiwari” and left it to the BJP to take action against him.

BJP leaders Manoj Tiwari, Vijender Gupta and Meenakshi Lekhi meet Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to discuss the sealing drive in January 2018. Photo credit: IANS

‘A very big issue’

Many of the traders spoke with argued that the “sealing issue” will play a significant part in determining the outcome of the election in Delhi.

“For us, sealing is a very big issue in this election,” said Ashok Sakhuja, president of the Meharchand Market Association. “Since 2006, the BJP has been in power in Delhi municipal corporations but they have done nothing except take money from us.”

Sakhuja claimed as many as 130 of the 152 properties in Meharchand Market have been sealed. “At least 300 to 400 employees have lost their jobs because of this,” he said.

In Karol Bagh, nearly 200 shops have been closed, and Ram Lal, general secretary of the local traders’ association, blamed the central government. “They were of no help,” he complained. “They did not pay attention to our issues and they sealed our shops without informing us. We keep giving to the government, whether it is sales tax or income tax. It is very unfortunate the BJP, which we have supported, didn’t help us. Manoj Tiwari breaking seals was all just a drama.”

Sanjay Khanna, who runs a hardware store in Palam Colony, Southwest Delhi, echoed the sentiment. “We didn’t get help from the government. There has been a big change among traders; the support has shifted away from the BJP. The difference will be seen in the election.”

Some traders, however, claimed the sealing drive is not a major election issue. “Our memory is very short so this may not be a very big issue,” Praveen Anand, president of the Sadar Bazar Traders’ Welfare Association, argued. “And everyone has their party loyalty. Traders not affected by the sealing will not care about it. We are not united on this issue. All are suffering, but everyone has a different perspective on this. We have now become a vote bank for parties.”

But Sakhuja pointed out that it is not just over the sealing drive that traders in his market are angry with the BJP. “Most traders in Delhi are BJP supporters, but now everyone is facing losses because of demonetisation and GST,” he explained, referring to the Goods and Services Tax. “We all know the BJP will lose all seven seats in Delhi if the Congress and AAP have an alliance.”

‘It’s a local problem’

The BJP insisted that it is not to blame for the sealing drive. “We have already tried to sort out this issue,” said Harish Khurana, spokesman of the Delhi BJP. “It happened to those who did not pay the money and to those who had unauthorised constructions. And traders need to understand that it is the monitoring committee that is doing this, not the Centre or the municipal corporations. The BJP is not playing politics over this.”

Khurana dismissed the argument that the matter could hurt the BJP’s prospects. “It is a very local problem,” he said. “When it comes to electing the prime minister, it might or might not have an impact.”

It is a problem that can be neutralised, the BJP spokesman added, but did not explain how.

The saffron party’s rivals seem to think otherwise. “The Congress has already said if we get elected at the Centre, we will deseal all the units within 10 days,” said Jitender Kochhar, the party’s spokesperson in Delhi. “We did this in 2006 also. We do not want to interfere with the livelihoods of traders in Delhi. We have held meetings with traders around the city. There’s a big and diverse trader population in Delhi and sealing is an attack on them.”

Just like his party’s leader, AAP’s candidate from Chandni Chowk, Pankaj Gupta, linked the sealing drive to the demand for full statehood, the ruling party’s main campaign plank. “The sealing has led to a lot of job losses,” he said. “Delhi’s MPs have not raised this issue in Parliament. This is one of the BJP’s failures that we will highlight. We have raised this issue at every forum and held meetings with all stakeholders.”

Also read: Elections 2019: As Congress dithers over Delhi alliance, AAP and BJP get a head start in campaigning

Delhi BJP is gathering data on welfare scheme beneficiaries for 2019 polls. Is it a cause for worry?