In Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, a perpetual worry: Of fires and firefighting

On Thursday night, a massive fire which broke out in the shops of Bhagirath Palace market in North Delhi’s Chandni Chowk once again brought into limelight the challenges of firefighting in the narrow lanes that dot the area.

According to Bhagwan Bansal, general secretary of the Delhi Hindustan Mercantile Association, “Fire is a constant threat at Chandni Chowk. Every six-eight months, I hear that some fire has broken out. There have been fires in Kucha Natwa, Katra Dhuliya, Moti Bazaar and Katra Neel, to name a few.”

“The main problem is that there are a plethora of wires hanging loose all over Chandni Chowk, which can easily cause fires. When the BSES comes to change the meters, the wires are left untouched. We constantly raise the issue at the local office and have sent letters to Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and the Lieutenant Governor, but to no avail. Due to the frequency of such accidents, a Delhi Fire Service vehicle should be permanently stationed here for contingency,” he said.

Delhi Fire Services (DFS) Chief Atul Garg, however, said: “That (a permanent vehicle) would not solve the issues we face in cases of a fire such as the narrowness of streets…. There are complications even after we reach the spot. We do not take more than 10 -15 minutes to reach.”

In October, Delhi L-G Vinai Kumar Saxena during a visit to the market had said fire tenders and ambulances will be deployed in and around the Chandni Chowk area to deal with any emergency. He also said an exercise to identify fire-prone locations and for deployment of fire tenders and ambulances in the capital is being undertaken by the fire department and the initiative will be started from Chandni Chowk before Diwali.

In early September, Chandni Chowk textile trader Rajender Malhotra stocked his store in the Kutcha Natwa cloth market, anticipating high profits in the festive season, but it was not to be. On the morning of September 5, the entire building that houses his shop was gutted, leaving him with losses running into crores. Merchants of Chandni Chowk say that his tale of woe is all too common.

At Moti bazaar, traders recall the 2017 fire that burned down several shops. Rajesh Goyal, proprietor of Priya Creations, said: “The entire shop was charred and all the stock was lost… the fire was started by a short circuit. Fortunately, our loss was covered through insurance.” This isn’t even the first time the shop has burned down, Goyal recalled that another fire in 1984 had brought the entire building down.

At nearby Katra Dhulia, trade is yet to recover from the double blow of Covid and a fire from 2017. Raj Narain, secretary of the Katra Dhulia committee, said, “Nine shops have shut since then and are yet to reopen. Because of the disruption to trade by the pandemic and the fire, earnings are yet to reach normalcy… Customers visit a store and return after some time, it is a loop. If that chain is broken, the trader will incur losses.”

Sources in the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation said fire hydrants had been placed at Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort side to Fatehpuri. However, this may not be enough to deal with the issue of fires deep within the alleys in the area.

According to DFS Chief Garg said, “Fighting fires in Chandni Chowk is difficult because of the narrow alleys and the shortage of water. Also, we do not know what kind of material and goods are stored inside as they differ from store to store. Some areas may also be residential.”

On the issues of hanging wires, a BSES official said, “The old electricity network has been completely replaced. The incidents of short circuits and fires in this heavily congested area have not been on account of BSES… In many places, unused internet and TV cables have not been removed by the service providers, and they continue to be illegally strung across electricity poles and lead to mishaps. The congested and narrow lanes have cables and pipes of other civic agencies, including sewer and water lines, limiting the right of way available for shifting the overhead network underground.”

Meanwhile, commerce still goes on. Raj Narain said with a smile, “We traders will keep working despite the losses and difficulties. That is how we are.”

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