Situated right opposite the famous flea market, Janpath Bhawan is one of the city’s best-known shopping centres, located in its very heart and frequented by dignitaries and hordes of shoppers alike. Yet, right behind the imposing walls of the building lies a sad, decrepit skeleton of what used to be the most charming part of the market, for both adults and children alike, till just six years ago.

Between 1998 and 2004, representatives of the Janpath Bhawan Market Association wrote countless letters to all sorts of civic authorities including the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), along with their various subsidiaries, to take actions against the defilement of the 22 by 20 feet empty space owned by the Ministry of Urban Development behind the building – not only was the area commonly used as a garbage dump, it was also a popular spot for street hawkers from the flea market to relieve themselves.

According to Sanjeev Arora, then President of the Janpath Bhawan Market Association (JBMA) and owner of the Famous Book Shop; “the stink emanating from the area was so bad that it was difficult to walk around it, which severely hampered business for all of us. The police would come for a couple of hours, but as soon as they left, things would go back to the usual”. The association tried many initiatives to keep the area clean – pictures of Gods and Goddesses were plastered across the walls – but to no avail.

Then, in 2004, things seem to take a turn for the better when the CPWD set up a horticultural enclosure in the space to be developed as a green area. However, when the space continued to be used as a dumping ground, the JBMA led by Sanjeev Arora proposed the idea of converting the enclosure into a rabbit hutch.

“Because the area is surrounded by multi storeyed buildings, the area does not receive much light and thus proved not to be appropriate for horticulture. Rabbits seemed an appropriate solution to the problem: the animals are loved by all, are easy to take care of, cannot be found in zoos, and wouldn’t create any noise or disturbance in the area. So, we pitched the idea to the CPWD, who approved the idea and notified the concerned departments that ‘a rabbit enclosure was being constructed to stop the misuse of land’. We got all the requisite permissions from the Central Zoo Authority and animal welfare to ensure that the Wild Life (Protection) Act was not being violated in any way, and got about 25 rabbits to their new home.”

Arora, whose book shop shares its back wall with the enclosure; took charge of taking care of the rabbits at no cost to the government by appointing vets, employing caretakers, and installing coolers, heaters and lights within the enclosure in order to keep the rabbits comfortable and ensuring that they were well-fed.

Soon, the rabbit hutch became a popular attraction. According to one of the shop-owners in the area, the enclosure was the kind of landmark that people used to stop by to have a look at on the way back from major sites such as India Gate. “Children would huddle around the enclosure for hours, admiring the animals, while their parents shopped in peace,” said another shopkeeper in the area. The initiative of the market association was featured in many newspapers, including The Statesman, The Times of India and the Indian Express, and even popular publications in Germany. In 2007, the Delhi Government awarded the association under the Bhagidari project in the spirit of government-people partnership.

There were a few roadblocks along the way – such as when in 2008 Maneka Gandhi accused Arora of violating animal rights and using the enclosure to usurp government land, and complained to the Director General of the CPWD on grounds of “unchecked breeding” – but these issues were amicably sorted, and the healthy rabbits remained a landmark for people to meet at, and an attraction for urban children to admire.

However, with a change in the CPWD authorities, trouble began again for the JBMA. “The new official began to harass us, bringing up a clause that said the area was cleared for horticulture as a green space, not for animals,” Arora told The Citizen.

“They hinted at demands for money, but we were already spending about 1000-1200 Rupees a day to take care of the rabbits, and we didn’t pay them anything,” he added. On January 3, 2012, the CPWD disconnected the electricity supply to the area without any notice, leaving the rabbits to the mercy of Delhi winters and leading to the death of a few rabbits due to the cold. Shopkeepers in the area allege that this was done by CPWD engineers to take revenge against the association for speaking to the media about the perils of safety at Janpath Bhawan. Later, water supply to the area was also cut, and traders took away some rabbits to save them from endangerment.

Things got worse in 2013, when the CPWD started serving eviction notices to the enclosure. According to the association, these notices were not typed on the agency’s letterhead or carry the signature of any authority, and so they did not respond to them. On May 22 2013, the last notice was served, after which the association approached the courts. “We were told that the CPWD had received complaints from shopkeepers in the area, but in reality, nobody had any issues with the rabbits whatsoever,” Arora told The Citizen.

“We were being asked to remove the rabbits as they were allegedly bringing us publicity, but we had only brought them to maintain cleanliness in the area. Despite our explanations and reassurances, the Director General and the chief-engineer of the CPWD came and conducted repeated “inspections” on the site. Then, one night at 3 AM; within the waiting period of the show-cause notice; CPWD sent bulldozers to the area and razed the enclosure to the ground,” he said. According to the shopkeepers, there were around 48 rabbits in the enclosure at the time, and they had recently been visited by the vet.

The next day, CPWD officials placed some potted plants in the space. According to Arora, the association filed an RTI to check for complaints against the enclosure, but none were to be found. “The complaint on the basis of which the CPWD acted was filed by their very own people whose offices are in RK Puram, and who have nothing to do with the area. They said that the land was being misused, and were probably angered that we were not ready to pay-up to them,” said Arora. In a few days’ time from the demolition of the enclosure, the plants; left neglected by the CPWD; shriveled up, and people started to dump their garbage in the space again.

Today, Sanjeev Arora; who runs a 71-year-old book shop connected to the area, is still asking for answers. The empty space has reverted back to its original state, and is used once again as a dumping ground. “Under Modiji’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, there has been some respite in terms of the absence of public urination in the area, but it is still unsanitary and a nuisance to the businesses in the area and the public as well,” said Arora.

Business-owners in Janpath Bhawan still believe that the space was much better off as a rabbit hutch, which made people happy and did not expose them to stench and germs. The CPWD no longer takes any initiatives to clean up the area, and it has reverted back to the original problem the association set up the rabbit enclosure to fight against. Despite efforts of former Union Minister of State, Culture and Tourism K. J. Alphons to restore cleanliness to the area last year, progress is yet to be achieved.

One is left to ask whether the civic authorities really do care about the welfare of the people and the localities which they are entrusted with.

The rabbit hutch maintained by The Famous BookStore and JBMA

The enclosure built by the CPWD before the hutch

The demolition.

Area neglected after demolition and restoration of “horticultural space”

Site used for public urination

Janpath Bhawan Market Association being awarded the Bhagidari award in 2007