When historical Delhi village turns into party central
Real estate agent Abhay Raj Chauhan works long hours during the week. But on weekends, he drives over 22 km from Noida in Uttar Pradesh state to Hauz Khas Village in capital city Delhi.
Mr Chauhan, 27, and his friends like to have a drink or two and soak in the atmosphere at the village, which has dozens of pubs and restaurants overlooking a 14th century complex of tombs, a madrasah (Islamic school) and a 13th century tank or reservoir.
“We keep going there because there is no other place like Hauz Khas,” said Mr Chauhan. “There is a party atmosphere and it’s the best place to hang out in Delhi.”
Revellers can sometimes be seen dancing into the wee hours on the streets of this urban village, which also has designer boutiques, an art gallery and shops.
On weekends, the sole road leading into the village – or HKV, as it is known – is usually jammed. An average of nearly 3,000 partygoers descend each weekend on narrow lanes trodden by Islamic scholars to the madrasah in the 14th century.
But the popular hang-out has come under fire in recent years as a flagrant example of uncontrolled commercialism and a lack of urban planning and policing – a problem that is common across India.
For partygoers like Mr Chauhan, the party may be coming to an end.
On Sept 15, the Delhi High Court called the village, which has a few hundred residents, “a ticking time bomb because of a lack of civic amenities and emergency services”.
The court noted that fire services could not access the narrow lanes and warned of action against restaurant owners in case of a mishap.
Ten days after the court’s observations, the authorities shut down 21 restaurants and pubs as they did not have clearance from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.
In August, an inspection by a court appointed team found that establishments were serving liquor near schools, which is not allowed in India. It also found that buildings were constructed very close to the madrasah complex, a protected archaeological area, but this is not allowed according to local laws.
Like many cities in South Asia, Delhi, a city of over 18 million people, has grown haphazardly as the authorities turned a blind eye and developers without permits moved in to cash in on the needs of the city’s growing population.
There are 1,650 illegal residential colonies catering to different social classes in Delhi.
Green groups and activists have raised concerns about the harm that some of these colonies may cause.
In particular, they say that HKV’s excessive development has threatened an adjacent green belt where deer and peacocks can be found.
In 2013, the National Green Tribunal, a powerful green court, ordered restaurants in the village operating without pollution permits to be shut down as they were posing a threat to the madrasah complex, lake and park.
A total of 34 restaurants were shut down by the authorities, but reopened days later after promising to do something about the pollution. It is not clear if they had actually done so.
“The problem is how does a Hauz Khas come up like this. According to the masterplan of Delhi, this is a village… an archaeological area, said lawyer and social activist Anuja Kapur.
“The mixed commercialisation (the setting up of commercial units) is only for the ground floor. Yet there are restaurants on the first and second floors. There is corruption,” she said.
She has filed a petition in court against the rampant commercialisation of the village, pointing out that restaurants and bars had popped up without any planning, and were polluting the village and a nearby lake and green area.
Dr Vaibhav Singh, a dentist who lives and works in Hauz Khas Village, remembers the good old days in the 1990s and early 2000s when it was a sleepy village that drew a very different crowd.
“There were cool hipsters and they would stare out at people who weren’t cool enough. They would raise their hats and say hello. It was a very bohemian pocket,” he said.
Then the nouveau riche started coming in the last decade and the traffic jams started, he added.
Eateries and shops started to come up around the madrasah, which was built during the time of Delhi Sultanate ruler Firoz Shah of the Turkic Muslim Tughlaq dynasty, who also built his own tomb within the education institute. But it fell into disuse after the emperor died in 1388.
Hundreds of years later, in the 1980s, the village around the madrasah came to the notice of the city’s elite, with local designers like Ms Bina Ramani moving in.
The city’s bohemian set, including artists and musicians, followed.
In the 1990s, there were just one or two restaurants in the village. These offered live music and drew a bohemian crowd.
HKV grew explosively in the last few years, after a younger crowd from other parts of Delhi discovered the village. This led to a proliferation of restaurants and pubs. There are now about 40 restaurants along an 800m-long stretch, according to the Hauz Khas traders’ association.
“It is a place to visit to feel the vibe of Delhi past and present. It is one unique destination that is a fusion of the past and cultural evolution of the present,” said Mr Satinder S. Sarna, president of the association.
WHAT NOW FOR THE VILLAGE?
The week after the restaurants were shut by the authorities, the crowds were noticeably thinner at Hauz Khas Village.
At Wow Momo, a restaurant serving dim sum, a closure notice from the local authorities was pasted on the front glass door.
An employee shrugged and said: “It will open in a few days.”
Still, restaurant owners like Mr Prashant Karan, who owns three restaurants, including the popular Frat House, said they were not sure what was going to happen.
All his restaurants, which employ 150 people in total, were shut down by the authorities.
“It’s really tough, my condition right now… There are many payments and salaries to give, vendor payments,” he said.
But Mr Sarna hoped that things will get back to normal.
The affected restaurants were in the process of getting the required clearance, he said, adding that the village’s restaurants and bars contributed three million rupees (S$62,745) in taxes to the authorities annually and employ 4,000 people.
“What has happened is that the authorities have suddenly realised we must conform to international standards. We are not perfect, yet we are not running away from responsibility,” said Mr Sarna.
Some partygoers are already bracing themselves for the worst.
“We may have to find another place,” said Mr Chauhan.