The beginning of last year, started on a very bitter note, for more than 7 lakh families, who suffered from the outcome of the sealing of 20,000 shops and small factories, following a supreme court order, primary reason being, nonpayment of conversion charges, among other things. The surprising part is that many are suffering the sealing, despite having paid lakhs in these conversion charges, where in most cases, these charges don’t even apply to them. Their businesses were forcibly sealed by MCD, despite large scale protests in old, landmark markets in Delhi like in defense colony, while the AAP government was forced to watch helplessly.

2000 traders organized a Delhi bandh in January 2018, to protest against sealing but to no avail.

Statehood and Land Matters

Since Delhi is not a full state, land matters are not under the purview of the state government, like it is with other states, making sealing a unique problem, limited to Delhi. Therefore, they have to rely on the centre to pass an ordinance, or a legislation, instead of doing it themselves. But a petty prime minister, who is stretching his power struggles with AAP far too much in Delhi, is crushing the traders, its strongest vote bank in Delhi. A better state, centre understanding would have helped with the solution in no time.

A similar situation was avoided in 2006, when seeing the anger in the people, the then congress government in centre and state, brought in the Special Provision Bill, which excluded constructions till 2006, from sealing. This temporary relief measure, however kept getting an extension every three years, the last one which ended in December 2017.

Supreme Court and Sealing

The supreme court then appointed a three member monitoring committee, which reported large scale encroachments and violations. The SC then issued an order to start sealing in January 2018. However, the manner in which the sealings have been conducted, with extreme urgency, defies all logic.

About 550 shops in Lajpat Nagar were sealed overnight, without any notices, even with the shop owners providing the officials, all proofs of the conversion charges, parking charges and electricity charges that too at commercial rates paid, houses taxes too, in the last 30 plus years, which cannot be collected, if the structures are deemed illegal. Businesses in Chabri Bazar, Chandni Chowk, Gandhi Nagar and Indralok too, which are 45-50 years old were sealed without a warning. What is shocking is that a 1962 market in defense colony, which was fully commercial, where no conversion charges apply, was also sealed.

Stay in Sealing Scrap Units in Mayapuri

A few days ago, Delhi government managed to get a stay on sealing the scrap units in Mayapuri area, where large scale violence broke out, when MCD officials along with paramilitary forces swooped in to seal their premises and the traders protested. The sealing had been ordered, when the court found that these units were highly polluting, a charge the traders denied. These units crush lakhs of old vehicles, to process it as scrap, which would have otherwise clogged Delhi’s roads. Besides suffering midnight raids, officials arrived to seal, after the model code of conduct was in place, which is not the norm. Even the environment minister Imran Khan was not informed of the sealing.

Video of clash between traders and police in Mayapuri over sealing

Conversion Charges

There are three kinds of land allotments in Delhi, commercial, residential and a mixed lot. It was found that in residential areas, parking spots, below their residences were being used as commercial spaces for which they were required to pay conversion charges.

In the mixed lot, where commercial activities, were allowed downstairs, while there were residences upstairs, were all soon operating as commercial premises and had to pay conversion charges as well.

Most of these markets have been in existence for 35 and 40 years, and encroachments were allowed to happen on a large scale, in connivance with the officials, but only traders have been made to suffer, though 99% of them want to run their businesses honestly and are not able to do so.

Besides the MCD being lax in collecting conversion charges, the DDA too has been guilty of charging too high. DDA reduced these charges from Rs 89,000 per sq ft to Rs 22,000 per sq ft in December 2017.

In another amendment in June 2018, they clearly stated the Local Shopping Centres (LSC) and Commercial Shopping Centres (CSC), which cover about 109 big markets like the ones in GK1 and 2, Lajpat Nagar and Defense Colony are on commercial land, where no conversion charges apply. Yet MCD has already charged these shop owners one time conversion charges, which now amounts to a collection of about Rs 1000 crores. In a communication by the South Delhi Municipal Council (SDMC) commissioner Puneet Goel, to DDA, he mentions that if the amendment is applied then MCD will have to return these conversion charges with interest to the business owners.

Ordinance and Full Statehood: Solution to Sealing

Recently, at a massive gathering with traders and businessman, in Talkatora indoor stadium, when questioned whether he will bring in an ordinance, after elections, for immediate relief, the prime minister Narendra Modi, stayed noncommittal. All the seven BJP MP candidates fielded in the Lok Sabha elections in Delhi too are ducking this question. This means that the traders have a long battle ahead in the courts, unless AAP manages to win all seven Lok Sabha seats, so they can push for an ordinance to be passed, and push for full statehood too.

AAP Leader Dilip Pandey, MLA Somnath Bharti, Councillors and volunteers marching towards LG house during a protest against sealing (Feb , 2018)

The extreme reluctance of the BJP government to pass the ordinance, when they did so in the case of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and when they wanted to bring in chances in the Foreign Contribution Regulation (FCRA) act of 2010, is baffling. Neither at the trader meet, nor at a recent rally in Delhi, did Narendra Modi promise to find a solution to this issue, despite traders being their biggest vote bank. There could only be two reasons for it. Either the BJP government itself wants the businesses to disappear from city limits, which has already been indicated by the union urban development minister, Hardip Puri, stating that these iconic markets are to be ‘relocated’. Alternatively, they are not sure of coming back to power and want the tussle between state and centre to go on, in this matter.

As of now there is no relief coming from the centre, and the traders are simply at the mercy of the courts now.

Vijaya is an Independent journalist and writes on current politics, sports and spirituality. She started her career as a print journalist, specializing in investigative reporting, having contributed to several publications including The Pioneer, The Week, Indian Express, Free Press group, Midday, Afternoon, Daily and Life Positive. (Know more about author)