Legacy of destruction(Abridged)
Chitvan Gill

Delhi is blessed with a phenomenal built legacy, but as its skyline is increasingly marred by chaos and a completely banal interpretation of modern architecture, the urgency of retaining the city’s unique character becomes ever more immediate. The Master Plan (MPD 2021) perfunctorily recognizes this, but the two-page chapter on heritage is severely inadequate to tackle this monumental task.

Countries the world over are now moulding cities around their legacies. Even Shanghai – the icon of rampaging modernity – is shaping its new urban fabric around its historic city centres. The DDA, however, remains in a time warp as Delhi’s built heritage faces increasing and reckless pressures of careless commercialization.

MPD 2021 acknowledges that, “The built heritage of Delhi is an irreplaceable and non renewable cultural resource”. But a visible strategy to preserve this is altogether absent. MPD 2021 even dispenses with the pretence of laying down specific guidelines, and, leaves the ASI, GNCTD, State Archaeology Department, NDMC, MCD, Cantonment Board and DDA to frame “appropriate action plans…” At one stroke, all planning for heritage is left in the hands of seven separate agencies with a history of disastrous coordination. The Master Plan takes no responsibility.

It is interesting to see MPD 2021’s listing of heritage zones: the Walled City, Nizamuddin, Mehrauli, Begumpur, Chirag Dilli… All living examples of how fully heritage zones can be violated. Today, these are all victims of rampant commercialization, ghettoization and disastrous urban policies: Shahjahanabad is a declared slum; Begumpur and Nizamuddin are not far from the same fate; and in Mehrauli ‘encroachers’ live in Zafar Mahal, one of the last great exemplars of Mughal architecture.

Despite this, the Master Plan has allowed for the further densification of these very areas! Shockingly, Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) and Connaught Place fail to find a mention in this listing of heritage zones. And further, in its chapter on “Government Offices” the plan allows “intensive development” of these offices which are “occupying prime land”. A large number of these offices are located in the LBZ.

Elsewhere we also find plans for “development of the metropolitan city centre… the classical Connaught Circus and multi-storeyed buildings in its extension… to bring in visual integration in the overall form.” Again, LBZ “has to be conserved in the process of redevelopment.” The precise nature of this ‘redevelopment’ is never spelt out.

The M.N. Buch Committee had, in 1998, very clearly rejected densification and a high rise profile for Lutyen’s Delhi, noting that such “interference… would tantamount to a crime.”

Heritage conservation cannot be carried out in isolation; it is no longer simply a matter of preserving individual buildings. But the conceptual failure in MPD 2021 is manifest in the observation: “While preparing any layout plans, these (buildings) should be suitably incorporated.” Rather than stressing the necessity of allowing the built heritage to dictate and shape enveloping urban forms, such buildings are seen as just a nuisance that has to be ‘accommodated’.

The Master Plan sagely notes, “Delhi had a traditional urban design… reflected in the glory of 17th century Shahjahanabad and New Delhi. In the course of time Delhi is becoming amorphous aggregate of masses and voids.” To correct these cumulative distortions, the Master Plan offers a range of suggestions on ‘urban design’. But it is precisely such ‘improvements’ and past attempts at ‘artification’ that have created some of the most grotesque forms in the city!

The DDA appears to see Delhi’s built heritage as a white elephant, an unproductive asset. But there is critical need, today, to redefine the way heritage spaces are used, to maximize their commercial potential without degrading the structures. Properly conceived, heritage can not only pay for itself, it can add immensely to the wealth of the city.

The complex pressures that undermine heritage management are illustrated by some interesting decisions in the past. The Urban Development Ministry allotted a 22 acre green patch to the DRDO for a new office complex. The area falls squarely within the LBZ, which was designated as one of the world’s most endangered heritage sites by the World Monument Fund, and the M.N. Buch Committee had noted that “all green spaces in LBZ must be conserved, improved and enhanced.”

Again, eight acres of land on the Central Vista were allotted to the External Affairs Ministry for a new ‘Videsh Bhawan’ complex. Edwin Lutyens had earmarked this specific area as a ‘cultural hub’, a place to nurture and showcase the country’s creative best. DDA’s Delhi has turned this proposed cultural hub into a playing field for babus, on space stolen from the people.

These are among the Administration’s many contributions to Delhi’s ‘heritage’. Just as it has presided over the extinction of many of the city’s past splendours, it continues with its task of grasping that elevated past and bringing it crashing down to earth.

The writer is Convenor, Urban Futures Initiative

Published in The Pioneer, June 6, 2005






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