Even after more than seven decades of Independence, the two Assembly segments under Delhi’s Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency — Ballimaran and Matia Mahal – known as Asia’s biggest market and country’s distribution hub for tools and machinery parts, besides the infamous red-light district of the National Capital — still suffer due to absence of civic amenities and lack of attention from the administration.
Right from traders and the common man to sex workers of Garstin Bastion Road (GB Road), the red light area -- all have lost faith in the political parties, whether it’s the ruling AAP in Delhi or BJP at the Centre or the opposition Congress. Over the years, the commercial hub has metamorphosed into Delhi’s underbelly with thriving crime due to deteriorating law and order situation in the area.
This part of the walled city – Chandni Chowk, where iconic tram used to be a major attraction and the means of public transport during the British Raj, and the three-storeyed buildings at Delhi’s biggest red light area GB Road, running from Ajmeri Gate to Lahori Gate that served as brothels – seems to be out-of-place in the National Capital that aspires to be a world-class city.
The history of GB Road dates back to Mughal era but it became an organised block (Kothas) for sex workers through an administrative measure during the British rule. While the ground floor of three-storeyed buildings serves as shops and commercial establishment, the upper floors are brothels, housing nearly 1,850 sex workers.
Immediately after Independence, GB Road, which was rechristened as Swami Shradhanand Marg in 1966, emerged as Asia’s biggest wholesale and retail market for tools, machinery, sanitary ware and automobile parts. It’s the biggest distribution hub of these items for the country.
Unfortunately, political apathy and neglect over decades rendered this revenue-generating district into an undeveloped area. Potholed roads, overflowing drains, chocked sewerage system, dangerously hanging overhead electrical wires intertwined with telephone cables, lack of parking facility, unruly traffic, lawlessness and crime in broad daylight -- all have contributed in giving these two Assembly segments a bad name.
It’s a nightmare for outsiders, especially traders from outside Delhi, who visit the market for business transactions, on more than a kilometre-long stretch, the over-crowded Shradhanand Marg, even during the day. They can be intimidated anytime by goons.
Ahead of the Delhi Assembly election in 2014, the residents of GB Road, which is a part of Ballimaran and Matia Mahal Assembly segments, handed a memorandum to senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who had visited the area for campaigning. Among other residents and traders, a large group of sex workers, who had then got voting right after a long struggle met Sibal, and the latter had assured the voters of development.
Congress party was completely wiped out in the election, and AAP came to power with a historic majority, winning 67 in the 70-seat assembly in 2015. The BJP-led NDA came to power defeating the UPA at the Centre in 2014. Despite the change in political guards at the Centre and in Delhi, the fortune of these two Assembly segments, especially GB Road, remained unchanged, in fact, it turned for worse.
At present, Muslim-dominated Ballimaran and Matia Mahal are AAP strongholds. The voters of Matia Mahal had expected some development to take place as the AAP MLA from this seat, Asim Ahmed Khan, became a minister (Food and Civil Supplies) in Arvind Kejriwal’s cabinet. In 2015, Khan, who had defeated the then five-time Congress MLA Shoib Iqbal and become a ‘giant-killer’ was ousted from the party over alleged corruption charges.
While AAP has retained the candidature of its sitting Ballimaran MLA Imran Hussain for the upcoming poll, it has given a ticket for Matia Mahal seat to Shoib Iqbal – also an ex-deputy speaker, who joined AAP in January this year. Congress party has fielded Javed Mirza and ex-minister Haroon Yusuf for Matia Mahal and Ballimaran respectively. The BJP candidates are Ravindra Gupta and Lata Sodhi.
“During 2014 Assembly election Kapil Sibal had visited this area and interacted with us including many sex workers. But after that, no one visited, not even Arvind Kejriwal, who had made tall promises before elections. In the past, a few politicians used to visit like Congress leader and minister, Haroon Yusuf in Sheila Dikshit’s government. But over the decades, the condition of this area has deteriorated in every aspect. In fact, GB Road has turned into a crime district,” Iqbal Ahmed, secretary (Delhi unit) of Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha (BPUS), an NGO working for the welfare of sex workers told Firstpost.
“Political parties visit only during elections for campaigning, but they never visit even once to take stock of the situation after winning. Due to illegal double parking on the main road that connects Ballimaran and Matia Mahal, there’s always a traffic chaos. If there’s an emergency, it would be impossible for an ambulance or a fire tender to move through the road. Chances of spreading vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria are high as the sewer lines are choked with garbage. During rainy season drains over-flow on roads,” Ahmed said.
The residents of the area have a strong complaint against the deteriorating law and order situation. Besides pimps operating in GB Road area, there are anti-social elements who openly roam on the street and intimidate passersby. There had been several incidents of pick-pocketing, looting and even stabbing in broad daylight.
According to an NGO, many of the members of these local gangs are as young as 12 years, who are used either for pick-pocketing or as couriers to sell drugs.
“I had complained to the police thrice against the rising crime, but to no effect. Instead, I was intimidated and attacked as I’ve become a target of these criminals. Now I have stopped complaining. There’s a police picket close by, but it’s of no use. The entire area has turned into a hub of drug peddling, snatching, pick-pocketing, looting and whatnot,” a resident of Matia Mahal shared with Firstpost on condition of anonymity.
Sex workers at receiving end
The inhabitants of this red light area generally remain oblivious of the ongoing political spectacle or the manifestos of political parties. Each time an election takes place – whether Assembly or for the Lok Sabha, the sex workers hope something may come their way, which ultimately never happens. Though these sex workers will again exercise their voting rights on 8 February, they are apprehensive about the fulfilment of their demands.
According to several sex workers of GB Road with whom Firstpost interacted, no politician ever visits them during campaigning due to social stigma. Though nearly 1,200 sex workers now have voting right and they cast their vote during elections, they have no faith in political parties. Brothel owners decide who to vote for and the sex workers follow.
“For political parties and the government, we don’t exist. We don’t even have ration cards. Water is free but often it’s so dirty that it can’t be consumed. Whom should we complain to? Several times we’ve been attacked by these local goons. However, nothing will change for us, no matter who comes to power,” said a 50-year old sex worker of GB Road.
Many of the sex workers were found unaware of AAP government’s Mohalla clinic due to its absence in the area. Instead, they choose to visit private clinics. A large number of sex workers are poor and they end up paying high fees to doctors.
“There’s no Mohalla clinic nearby GB Road, Matia Mahal or Ballimaran. We’re compelled to go to private clinics for tests and treatment, and often it’s very expensive for us,” said another sex worker.
Various trade associations have not only raised the issue with political parties, but also with the Centre, Delhi government and Municipal Corporation of Delhi — but to no effect.
“Even after more than 70 years of Independence, the situation has become worse in this general machinery market, which is considered as Asia’s biggest. Besides poor civic infrastructure, the law and order has hit rock bottom. Our customers from outside Delhi are afraid of visiting here due to crime. Government is earning revenue from this commercial hub, but hasn’t paid any heed to several complaints made by us,” said Radheshyam Sharma, president, Federation of Delhi Trade Association, who has been in business in this market since 1958.
“Our minimum demand to the government is that the parking facility, drainage system, road and law and order must improve as our business is facing the brunt,” added Sharma, also the ex-president of General Machine Merchant Association.
While AAP is an apparent favourite in these two constituencies, Congress seems to have more followers than the BJP. However, if AAP returns to power, it will have to pay attention to these vital constituencies, especially if it intends to make Delhi a world-class capital.
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Updated Date: Feb 03, 2020 14:49:31 IST