Livelihoods under seal

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Traders undertaking a novel "katora" (utensil) protest against the ongoing sealing drive in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Shopkeepers playing cricket in the Karol Bagh market as the shops remained closed during the protest demonstration called by traders and shopkeepers against the sealing drive in New Delhi on March 13. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Delhi’s trading community, distressed by the municipal corporation’s sealing drive, is up in arms against both State and Central governments.

Cries of “ Modi sarkar haye haye! Nainsaafi nahi sahenge, nahi sahenge!” (Down with the Modi government! We will not tolerate injustice!) rang out from a neighbourhood market in South Delhi recently. The sloganeering shopkeepers marched through the streets, and the size of the crowd increased as more people downed their shutters and joined the procession. Within a short span of time, the entire market wore a deserted look. The shopkeepers held a public meeting before dispersing.

On March 28, a bigger group comprising members and employees of 3,000 trade associations and their families will conduct a similar parade at Ramlila Maidan—where Arvind Kejriwal had campaigned as a political newbie before securing a massive electoral victory to form the government in Delhi. This time, the protesters are not on his side.

Around 7,000 commercial premises have been sealed across Delhi since December 15, 2017, when the Supreme Court revived the powers of a monitoring committee to seal properties that were operating in violation of the building by-laws, master plans and norms of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD)and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). They have been sealed for operating out of residential premises, non-payment of conversion tax and unauthorised construction.

There is distress amongst the traders of the national capital against both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, but the anger is more towards the latter. “First there was demonetisation, then GST [Goods and Services Tax] and now this sealing drive. Does the BJP want us to commit suicide like the farmers?” said a disgruntled trader.

While the AAP governs the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the authorities conducting the sealing drive—the MCD and the DDA—are under the control of the BJP. The trading community is the core vote bank for both the BJP and the AAP and there lies the political contention between the two parties in Delhi. They are both fighting to retain their loyal voter: the Hindu baniya trader. And this sealing drive, if not resolved soon, might cost both the parties dearly.

“The traders are vigilant and watching which party is doing what. They are treating us like a football, but at the right time, we will give them a fitting reply,” Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), told Frontline. The organisation’s calls for bandhs have received good responses since the sealing drive began in January.

Delhi is the largest distributive centre for the rest of India. Still reeling from heavy losses due to demonetisation and GST, business fell by 30-40 per cent after the sealing drive, according to Khandelwal. “The brute reality is that business has been hit [due to these policies of the government]. It [the sealing drive] will further distort the economy and trade of Delhi,” he said.

Traders unite

While sealing drives have been conducted in the past too, this time the traders have put up a united front. In another market, several men and women held hands to form a human chain and stood silently as a middle-aged man, assuming leadership, marched up and down encouraging more people to join the chain. “We are standing between our livelihoods and the police. If they wish to seal our shops, they will have to pass through us!” he roared. A posse of policemen stood nearby, watching.

The protesters were not small shopkeepers. This was Defence Colony, one of the poshest and most expensive markets in the heart of the national capital, and the people forming the human chain were rich store owners. Their body language and their impromptu leadership gave away the fact that they were not used to standing in the sun protesting against authority. But push had come to shove, and they were willing to fight back.

One restaurant owner said: “The MCD officials are asking us to pay Rs.1 lakh if we want parts of our shops de-sealed. It is better to protest along with the others and see what happens than to pay up the money.” Another person said it was the municipal corporation’s whim that every few years it would swoop down on them to seal shops, and after a few court hearings and protests, life would return to normal as the same officials would have taken bribes from the shopkeepers to maintain the status quo.

As the day wore on, the protesters surrounded the market and announced that they would join hands with traders in other markets that had decided to remain shut for a day to protest against the municipal corporation’s sealing drive. A rickshaw puller watching the spectacle said: “ Yeh sab mile huye hain, hume kya lena dena [They are all hand in glove with each other, how does it affect us]?”

The process of planned development in the modern-day national capital began with the enactment of the Delhi Development Act, 1957. The DDA and the MCD were the authorities designated to categorise land and regulate its use. In 1962, the DDA drafted the first Master Plan of Delhi to ensure proper guiding principles for socio-economic activities. Then came Master Plan 1981 (notified in 1990). Master Plan 2021, which was revised and notified in February 2007, is currently in force. A liberalised provision of mixed use (provision of non-residential activity in residential areas) in residential areas was adopted keeping in mind the growing demand for commercial activities and in order to overcome the shortfall of available commercial space.

As many as 2,183 streets were notified for local commercial and mixed-use activities while small shops catering to people’s daily needs were permitted on ground floors in residential areas. The norms governing mixed-use policy permitted use of residential areas for professional and non-residential purposes with some riders. For instance, retail shops and offices would be permitted on plots abutting streets notified for mixed use only on the ground floor up to the maximum permissible ground floor coverage. But over the years, several of these laws were violated and commercial activity carried out illegally in residential areas.

Traders defend their illegal activity by stating that the current laws do not take into account the need for such activity and should be amended. As per Census 2001, Delhi’s population was 138 lakh of which 93.18 per cent was urban against the national average of 27.81 per cent. It was projected to reach 182 lakh by 2011 and 225 lakh by 2021. To cater to this massive urban population, the setting up of shops, restaurants and commercial hubs was inevitable. The traders complain that owing to lack of proper urban planning, they had no option but to operate out of residential areas. Their demand is to modify the existing master plan and building by-laws.

Khandelwal said: “The question is, why were there violations? The government could not provide sufficient space required to keep pace with the growth in population. Stipulations under all three master plans were not fulfilled. The government should have made laws keeping the ground reality in mind and not the other way around. Had individuals not filled the gap and developed these commercial spaces, it would have created havoc in Delhi, with prices going through the roof.”

The government had been collecting house tax, electricity charges, water bills and other amenities at commercial rates from these establishments, which implies that it was well aware of their existence and did not object to it until the court ruling, he said. The CAIT would be going to court soon to obtain a stay of the Supreme Court’s ruling, as the political parties were only using the issue to settle scores with one another, he added.

The BJP and the AAP have been trading charges since the beginning of the current sealing drive. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal accused the Centre of partisan politics for not bringing in an ordinance to resolve the issue. “If you can bring an ordinance on jallikattu, why can’t you bring one to give traders relief from the sealing drive?” he said, addressing traders in Delhi. He said he was speaking as the Chief Minister of Delhi and not as a member of the AAP and threatened to go on hunger strike if the issue was not resolved by March 31. A meeting between the BJP’s Delhi leaders, the Commissioners of the three municipal corporations and Kejriwal ended in chaos.

Issues in perspective

The issue dates back to 1985 when the environmentalist M.C. Mehta filed a petition in the Supreme Court over illegal activities such as industries operating out of residential areas and the misuse of residential premises for commercial purposes. The Supreme Court set up a monitoring committee in 2004 to look into the first issue. In 2006, with regard to the latter, the Supreme Court ordered the MCD to ask people misusing their premises to stop doing so. In case they failed to do so within 30 days, the court said, the premises would be sealed.

As the public and the officials failed to take note of the notice, the Supreme Court set up a monitoring committee to oversee it. Protests erupted across the city and four protesters were killed in police firing. The situation became fragile, and the government was forced to halt the sealing against the court’s order. In order to resolve the crisis, the DDA modified the master plan insofar as the mixed-use clause was concerned, and the government notified the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Bill, 2006, which gave relief to traders against sealing for one year. Later, the Act was made operative until December 2017. A case challenging the 2006 Bill is pending before the Supreme Court.

On March 6, the Supreme Court expressed concern over the breakdown of the rule of law in sanctioning construction of buildings and stayed any further changes to Master Plan 2021. It pulled up the Delhi government, the DDA and the MCD for not submitting an environment impact assessment before proposing to change the master plan.

The amendments proposed sought to bring about a uniform floor area ratio (FAR) for shop-cum-residential plots and complexes on a parpar with residential plots. FAR is the ratio of a building’s total floor area (gross floor area) to the size of the piece of land on which it is built. The Supreme Court bench of Justices Madan Lokur and Deepak Gupta cited the instances of disasters in commercial buildings in support of their stringent stand on the sealing drive. “Everybody in Delhi is just keeping their eyes closed and waiting for disaster to happen. You [civic bodies] have learnt nothing from Uphaar fire tragedy and incidents in Bawana and Kamala Mills,” the bench said.

When more than half the shops were sealed in the Amar Colony area, a clash ensued between the traders and the police, in which several workers got injured. AAP MLAs and the Congress’ Ajay Maken visited the hospital to show solidarity with the workers. All of them placed the onus of resolving the issue on the BJP. The Delhi Assembly passed a resolution asking the Centre to take steps to stop the sealing drive, and Kejriwal asked for a moratorium.

A local issue threatens to have national ramifications in the political arena. Whether the sealing drive is carried out successfully or not, it is certain that the political fallout of the exercise has dented the BJP’s image among the trading community.