Chronicles “Losing it in bits and pieces”
Following the New Delhi Municipal Committee’s (NDMC’s) much-publicized intentions for the redevelopment of Rajpath and Connaught Place, the Government of India’s (GOI’s) interdiction of such “ill-conceived redevelopment and renovation plans,” on 28th April 2005, is to be welcomed. But not without a sense of foreboding. The capital city’s premier municipal agency has amply and frequently displayed its ineptitude, but the GOI should not twist its arms to have proposals vetted by yet another coterie, the Heritage Conservation Committee of the Ministry of Urban Development, especially when an appropriately mandated Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) already exists. When at long last the DUAC has a chairman, architect and planner Charles Correa, with the ability to articulate an urban vision — something he has done for forty years — an injustice would be inflicted on New Delhi if his authority is undermined.

It is axiomatic that Delhi’s fate will be determined by the extent to which its complex administrative rigmarole can be simplified and streamlined. The future is about mega-city-states that compete with each other for resources, manpower, growth, profits and talent, in an environment governed by just, sound and due process. If it wants to emerge ahead in that race, Delhi desperately needs a single agency to sustainably manage its development, and to submit its functioning to scrutiny by the state and public alike. That agency cannot be the DDA, which, in its Master Plan for Delhi 2021, professes a desire to make Delhi a “world-class city” but is clearly at a loss on how to do so, casting a pall of doubt on the very document that should elicit faith. Nor does our destiny rest in the incestuous lap of agencies like the NDMC, the MCD, the PWD, et al, who behave just like defunct PSU’s, boasting of flabby payrolls but entrusted with properties that comprise some of the most valuable real estate in the world. Because the stakes are high, it is time that Delhi’s urban development becomes a product of scientific research and analysis, and conforms to the universal mantras of best practice: anticipatory planning, accountability, delegation, timeliness and efficiency.

If we go by the recent public notice by the NDMC inviting responses to its ‘plans’ — displayed exclusively on their website — for the redevelopment of Connaught Place (CP) and Rajpath, it is evident that best practice is a tall order. In fact, they must be joking, because two poorly-conceived PowerPoint presentations do not constitute ‘plans’ (‘schemes’ is more appropriate). Gnash your teeth for six hours on a standard MTNL connection, and the files that land on your desktop are “corrected copy of presentation on 11.2.2005” (the 49.5Mb ‘plan’ for Rajpath,) and “final_redevlopment_cp1” (the 2.9Mb ‘plan’ for CP). A monkey could figure out that the NDMC does not credit the public with any great intelligence, even if they can use a Computer.

Now that the GOI has cracked the whip at its addled underlings, the Rajpath scheme will hopefully rot in a file somewhere, but a workable revival plan is desperately needed for CP, the tortured womb of a Central Business District, its horizons blocked by unsightly ‘skyscrapers’, its crowded innards brimming with filth and encroachment. Left to the NDMC, the revival will be like an Egyptian mummy — morbid inside, but colourful of face — since they have reduced the complex task of heritage revitalization to the augmentation of parking and a face-lift for buildings. A redevelopment process must include measures for the revival of interest of all stake-holders in CP, convincing the property-owners that they are custodians and beneficiaries of potentially one of the most unique shopping experiences of the world, and initiating an economic restructuring. This is manifestly beyond the existing official imagination.

The NDMC’s Powerpoint ‘scheme’ is mostly a school-boy’s analysis of CP’s traffic — probably the same school boy who planned the parking-debacle on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, where the perfectly civil row of emporia with substantial parking has been replaced by a pedestrianised CP-copy with no parking. Offering no analysis, it effortlessly regresses into proposals for prettification; the usual lampposts, footpaths, curbstones & signage type of budget which effectively depletes public funds drop by drop, to drain an ocean. Multi-level parking lots are proposed at undisclosed locations, the desire to “increase usage of commercial space” is professed but no details on implementation, and consequently no specifics regarding their consistency with the objectives of heritage conservation are provided, nor is any specific solution to “regulate use of backyards” presented. And, the Press informs us elsewhere — though NDMC’s cyber-‘Plan’ is silent on this count — that the price-tag for these non-solutions is Rs. 73 crores! The Government appears incapable of displaying even the minimal Saral-form transparency that it expects from every taxpayer.

Only financial naiveté can support the presumption that everyone can and should be provided parking in CP, that any investor — save for the state, which is habituated to wasting public funds — will find it cost-effective to build a garage on some of the most expensive urban space in the world. If the parking-fees in CP reflected the value of land, the NDMC would be rid of the delusion that CP’s problems are parking-related.

It is difficult to tell what is more damaging: the NDMC’s lack of imagination and will or, as noted by the Economic Survey of India 2005, their refusal to adopt double-entry book-keeping. Sound financial reasoning would show that mere ‘face-lifts’ will not save CP from the ruination that is imminent if rent control continues, producing an absurd juxtaposition of high-end retailers with bottom-line wholesalers, caviar sellers with purveyors of cheap deodorant, tailors with couturiers. The inner circle is barely surviving, the middle-circle is a mess of parking lots, booze shops and motor workshops, and the outer is littered with bankruptcy. Some might claim that this combination is endearingly exotic, but it is clearly robbing all businesses of enterprise and opportunity, and the city of its vibrant core.

The Metro hub will bring millions of people through CP. Leverage this frequency of ‘footfalls’, the real value of the land and the extraordinary character of the buildings, and CP can boast an urban renewal of staggering success, and our current parking anxiety will seem like a teenager’s tryst with acne. The possibilities for creating super-premium office space (as Mumbai has done in the Fort area) are endless, and we have not even begun to address the potential for upgraded residential use on the upper floors, with exclusive parking-equipped access from the inner courts, huge carpet areas and rooftop terraces.

Given that the NDMC’s jurisdiction is primarily over heritage properties, it needs to go back to school to learn how to deal with this specialty, as many municipal agencies have done throughout the world. Especially in CP, but more generally for all heritage ‘sites’, conservation needs to be thought of in terms of revitalization, such that built-heritage can pay for itself and provide the platform for other profitable businesses. Heritage revitalization is the main issue, and the physical state of buildings, services and infrastructure are its dimensions. It is not an assorted item, as the NDMC treats it in their schemes, a mere inter alia. If it continues to deny urban heritage the primacy it deserves, then even the future of the city will be just that: inter alia.

Jagan Shah


The Urban Imagination
The City In:
Myths And Legends