Delhi violence: As city slowly recovers, citizens count the economic costs

When the row of shops was being set ablaze, Ashok Sharma knew there was little he could do to save his store. Paint, after all, is highly inflammable. Sharma owns a paint and hardware store. His shop was one of the largest in the market on Johripur Road, as one enters Karawal Nagar from the Johri Enclave Metro Station side. The shop and the warehouse behind it, which Sharma owns as well, and runs with his nephew Mukesh, are entirely gutted.

“Over Rs 1 crore worth of paint, household electric components, and sanitary hardware and fittings was kept in the shop and the warehouse. It’s all gone,” Sharma says as we peek inside his store through the burnt out, broken iron shutters. Stacks of paint cans, bathroom fittings, pipes, everything seems to have melted. One can still feel the heat from deep inside the store.

As we talk, municipality workers clean the debris on the road, armed with bulldozers and tractors. Karawal Nagar looks like a warzone. The road is littered with rocks, bricks, bottles, garbage, burnt out husks of what were once cars and motorcycles, most buildings and shops are burnt, with smoke still emanating from some of them. A strange stench fills the air, a mix of ash, urine, vomit, sewage, rotting food, a rotting corpse somewhere. The stench of death and despair. And absolute administrative failure, as those who are the worst affected believe.

While local business associations across North East Delhi count their losses, the Delhi Chamber of Commerce believes the riots resulted in at least Rs 25,000 crore worth of damage, given that a large number of showrooms were torched along the main roads. Many godowns loaded with wholesale goods were looted and small factories were also gutted in the interior areas.

Jittery CRPF continue to guard Gokulpuri Tyre Market which was repeatedly attacked

Having lived his entire life in this part of North-East Delhi, not far from the Loni Border with Uttar Pradesh, Sharma set up his store and warehouse around 20 years ago. “This is a mixed market. This store belongs to a Hindu, that one belongs to a Muslim. There has never been any trouble. Even in 1984 and 1992-93, things were very peaceful. We have never seen anything like this,” Sharma says.

As strange as it seems, Sharma is lucky. Business Standard spoke to dozens of store owners and shopkeepers in Karawal Nagar, Bhajanpura and Chandbagh, as well as members of the Gokulpuri Tyre Market Association (Some 80 shops were gutted in the tyre market). Sharma was among the few who had insured his business. “My daily sales used to comfortably cross Rs 10,000. All is lost now. But we have been told we can expect some Rs 40 lakh in insurance payouts,” he said.

A few metres away, Amit Agarwal is surveying the damage of his wholesale business. He used to sell pan masala, ghutka, chips, snacks and other food items to the pan and cigarette shops in the area. Apart from the outer structure, there is nothing left here as well.

Amit Agrawal outside his shop in residential Karawal Nagar

“Who thinks about insurance sir? We never thought about that until this Monday, until the petrol bombs destroyed our lives,” laments Agarwal, who says he used to earn Rs 2 lakh per day. “My accounts book was inside the shop as well. Now I don’t know any more who owes me what or what I owe others,” he said.

Out of public gaze

Agarwal’s uncle owns the house at the end of the lane. All his tenants are Muslims. In fact, Karawal Nagar is a mixed area, with no clearly demarcated Hindu or Muslim localities. Once the violence started, most residents fled. Some of the men have returned to assess the damage, even as the police are making rounds, register in hand, asking them what all they lost.

It is too late. The common lament is that unlike other areas, there was no media or police presence at all in Karawal Nagar for a good 36 hours after the violence started on Monday. “This is an utter failure of the administration. Nobody outside knew this area was up in flames,” says Agarwal’s neighbour Gulfam, who works at a printing press in Mandawali in East Delhi. He gets paid on a daily basis and does not know when he will be able to return to work.

Parking lot in in Karawal Nagar was torched along with 70 vehicles

Next to Agarwal’s store is a parking lot for local residents. Around 70 vehicles, ranging from hatchbacks to SUVs, all of them charred.

But simply having insurance may not be enough. "The offices of insurers such as Life Insurance Corporation of India and New India Assurance are closed and we have reasons to believe that officers tasked with assessing the damage on ground have been asked not to respond to claims that are being filed all over North East Delhi," Gyan Pal, Secretary General of Bhajanpura market association, alleged.

Standing beside him, Taj Mohammed, owner of a wholesale garment business till a week back, silently nods. "Clothes worth Rs 12 lakh - part of the new collection for the upcoming summer months - went up in flames. Last year had been terrible for business as hardly anyone bought clothes even during the festival season. I was hopeful of turning a healthy profit this time since we here apparel prices will soon go up due to the corona virus that is spreading in China," he admits.

Criminals call the shots

Across North East Delhi, the worry of putting food on the table have now given way to another fear. "Criminal activity in this part of Delhi is controlled by gangs with their own marked out territory. Smuggling and extortion aside, their main way to earn money is by lending to small businesses," Saifuddin Ali, the owner of a restaurant on Chandbagh main road, that was gutted in the violence, said.

"The banks refused me a loan and local financing companies said they weren't confident such a small business like mine would stay afloat, so I had no choice but to approach loan sharks for Rs 2 lakh to buy chairs, and re-paint this place," he says, looking around his small eatery that prided itself on selling 8 different types of burgers. Multiple people confirmed that many business owners are now on the run, after receiving notices to pay up their debt within one month.

Bhajanpura and Chandbagh have been in the news since the riots started. Divided by a six-lane road, the former is a Hindu area, and the latter a Muslim area. Videos of pitched battles on either side of the road went viral, including that of an Indian Oil petrol pump, on the Bhajanpura side, up in flames.

'Burger Corner' owned by Saifuddin Ali on Chandbagh main road was firebombed

According to a petroleum retail industry association, the company-owned dealer-operated (Codo) outlet suffered massive losses over Rs 1 crore – including equipment and fuel stock. “The only time such an incident happened in my lifetime was in 1984. People were running for lives, shops were torched and look, people are so blind that they did not realize that this petrol pump could have turned into a bigger disaster,” says nonagenarian Avtar Singh, standing in front the pump.

A few hundred metres from the petrol pump, the employees and shoppers in a Reliance Fresh store on Wazirabad found themselves sandwiched between two rioting groups on Tuesday. Some 25 people, including passers-by who took refuge inside the store, were stuck there for around 10 hours.

“Every stone that fell on our shop’s shutter felt as if it was the end of our lives,” recalls Vijay Kumar, shop manager. Two warring factions, one from Bhajanpura side and the other from Chandbagh, turned the road in front of the Reliance Fresh store into a battlezone for over two days. The eight bikes parked in front of the store were burnt. The outlet used to do business of around Rs 4 lakh daily.

On the Chandh Bagh side, a few motorcycle showrooms were completely or partially burnt. “One bikes store lost at least 60 bikes in the fire. The nearby Suzuki bike showroom was also completely destroyed and there will be no business for at least three months in this area,” says Ravish Kumar, an employee of CredrTrue Bikes, which sells second-hand motorcycles and scooters. On a monthly basis the showroom does business to the tune of around Rs 60 lakh, he says. “We opened the store showroom today just to take the bikes out and shift them elsewhere. We will now be shut for months.”

“It was like a war with each side wanting to prove, who has better ammunition, more stones, more guns, more petrol bombs. The losers are business men like us. I used to earn Rs 500-600 daily through fruits sales. For last five days business is stopped and I lost Rs 15,000 worth of goods. Same is the case with majority of vendors in this market. Unlike me, some lost lakhs,” says Mohammed Riyaz, a fruit vendor.

Sidhique Medicos was the only shop open in Chandh Bagh area and while essential medicines and first aid essentials were selling out fast, its owner Faisul Islam had to say only one thing, “Politicians gained and us common folks were the losers. I opened today only after the police asked me, as mine is an essential business.”

Cleaner's day out

One of the few businesses booming is that of cleaners. People are eager to salvage as much as possible from amid the wreckage of burnt vehicles, mangled iron and melted stones. Most residents swore that municipal cleaning crews had not reached the area even 3-days after violence ended. Subsequently, many had suffered burns by scrambling around the smoldering wreckage. "There were a couple of small plastic container manufacturing units in the area. The fire must have spread the chemicals around. While the smell is terrible, even a small scratch or wound on the skin is festering rapidly heavily and feels like a searing burn. We are afraid," Class 12 student Manoj Yadav said.

Other residents confess that they've hired help to clean out the burnt out buildings. The help arrives from a predominantly dalit village 2 kilometers away. They do not have any protective gear apart from a wet towel, and are paid Rs. 500-700 per person every day.

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