In around 30-odd streets running perpendicular to the 60-feet road in Delhi's Vishwas Nagar area, the air is that of a Sunday. The windows are shut. Shutters are down with locks dangling at the bottom. Except it is a Tuesday. Further enquiries reveal the area has borne a barren look since December 2017.
In 2006, the Supreme Court-monitored committee identified unauthorised commercial establishments running in residential colonies, which was followed by several factories being sealed. Former chief minister Shiela Dixit, in January 2012, stopped it by introducing the Delhi Master Plan of 2021, which aimed at regularising some of the factories. In December 2017, however, the Supreme Court observed that the unauthorised establishments had not been checked, and asked the committee to resume the "sealing drive". By January 2019, more than 10,000 units had been shuttered, putting thousands of traders and labourers in a quagmire.
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi, run by the BJP, carried out the sealing drive on the instructions of the monitoring committee. The Delhi Development Authority, which is in charge of the master plan, reports to the BJP-run Centre. The traders, therefore, squarely lay the blame on the party they have traditionally supported.
Dilip Bindal, who had a godown at Vishwas Nagar, one of the areas where the sealing drive transpired, said most of those who ran a business here are now out of work. "I had a place in Ghazipur, so I moved my material there," said Bindal, who runs a paper business. "But most of the people lived here as well as worked here. The rent was Rs 25,000 a month. Moving the factory to another area means tripling the rent. Most of the traders here have not been able to get back on their feet. The labourers have also gone back to their villages. The tea stall and small eateries have suffered because all of them were their customers."
Bindal said the traders did not even get enough time to move out. "Three days notice, and we were out," he said.
The peculiar thing, though, is that every trader says it would harm the BJP in the upcoming Assembly election, but conclude that their vote is still with Narendra Modi. "The BJP has taken our vote for granted," added Bindal, "They reduced the corporate tax but our taxes continue to be what they were. The BJP knows we are not going anywhere."
The BJP is right. After complaining about the sealing drive, economic slowdown, and rising unemployment, none of the traders said they intend to desert the BJP when Delhi goes to polls on 8 February. There are around 10 lakh of them in Delhi, which may not be huge, but they run associations, and have the ability to influence several people working for them. Constituencies like Chandi Chowk, Karol Bagh and Sadar Bazar are replete with members of the trader community. While Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seems likely to come back to power, this is one community that continues to sit firmly in the BJP's corner.
The traders acknowledge that AAP has brought about certain reforms in education, but it is unlikely to influence their voting preference, because most of their children study in private schools. Sanjay Bhargava, president of the Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal, said schools do not make a city and a chief minister should have a holistic view. He added that Kejriwal should have paid more attention to the traders and markets — which he did not.
Bhargava pointed outside his Raymond store that opens up to the densely-populated and crowded market of Chandni Chowk. "This is the condition of the markets in Delhi," he said. "It is pathetic. We are competing with shopping malls. Compare that ambience with the one here. Do you think people would get pleasure out of shopping in congested areas? You might provide free water and electricity but you cannot overlook infrastructure."
But the traders have also been living through an economic slowdown. This reporter sat through a conversation where a trader called upon his friend to convince his son to leave India. "Your father and I have seen excellent days. Look at the condition of the economy. There is nothing left here," he said.
A few hundred metres from Bhargava's store, Bharat Ahuja, president of Delhi's Electrical Traders Association, sitting at his office, said business is at 40 percent of what it used to be. "It collapsed after demonetisation, and never picked up," he said, "Our supply is connected with real estate and Industries. Both are struggling, therefore we are struggling. But the Centre is neglecting it. The ministers are inaccessible."
Kejriwal has sought the opportunity to galvanise that discontent. AAP tried to exploit the sealing drive. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, according to Ahuja, even promised traders that no officer with the state government would harass them. Kejriwal himself belongs to the Bania community. But the party remains unpopular among traders because Kejriwal is "doling out freebies". "That is not a good practice," said Ahuja, "It is not in the national interest. It makes people lazy, and they stop working hard when they get everything easily."
At which point two more traders walked into his office and the interview was interrupted. Both gentlemen, while chatting about the upcoming elections, said, "Logonko nikamma kar raha hai Kejriwal. If a man is competent and hardworking, surely he can pay his electricity bills."
But the workers toiling hard at the factories of these traders know what it means to have the electricity bills subsidised. The traders know their workers are out-and-out AAP supporters. Bindal said he understands why they support Kejriwal. "It is perfectly legitimate," he said. "When we were enthusiastic about the BJP, we would tell our workers to vote for the BJP. If 10 people work for me, who knows? At least four might listen. But now, I do not tell them anything. The BJP government has not done anything for us, why should the workers feel hopeful about them?"
Then why are the traders still backing the BJP? "It has become a habit of sorts," said Bindal. "Good or bad, a habit is a habit. When you are using the same product for decades, it is not easy to move away from it."
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2020 08:34:26 IST