Chronicles Royal path to nowhere
For two months now, we have been following the Chief Minister of Delhi and her government, Inc., conferring ‘nods’ and ‘green signals’ to various ‘facelifts’ proposed by ever-eager municipal agencies. The ease with which hundreds of crores are sanctioned is shocking, but the appointment of a new Urban Arts Commission with, at long last, a visionary head, promises to check this noisome outflow. We desperately hope that in addition to his lofty designation, Mr. Correa will also be given teeth. He will need them.

The DUAC’s worthy chair has already checked the enthusiasm of the New Delhi Municipal Committee for their Rajpath project, the royal sum of 37-crore to be squandered on permanent seating for the Republic Day parade, new parking, new benches, curbstones and flowerbeds, new signage, new ‘concrete’ bridges over flowing waterways, new public toilets and new sandstone cladding for buildings abutting the besieged central axis of New Delhi’s baroque plan. We offer our assistance, sir, in your noble mission to avert disaster.

Three questions beg an urgent response: (i) Is the project necessary; (ii) is the interested agency competent, and (iii) does it set regrettable precedents? On the very first count, this project fails justification. Do we need permanent seating tiers for a spectacle that lasts a single day, because the Chief Minister believes the grass gets ruined? It is grass, madam, a hardy rhizomatic plant, easily coaxed to recovery by an able horticulture department. Perhaps, post Republic Day, you envisage an open-air forum for national bhagidari sessions, with people admiring your white ambassadors cruising past at touch-me-not speeds.

Entrusted with an aged city, the NDMC grabs at heritage conservation as an easy excuse for requisitioning pocket money. A senior official told the Indian Express (4th March 2005) that the ‘extensive makeover’ and ‘revamping’ of the Central Vista would “bring the area back to its old glory.’’ Let us overlook his ignorance. Restoring the original would require the removal of most post-1947 buildings on and near Rajpath, such as the Meridian Hotel, which emerged unscathed from controversy to conspicuously dwarf its surroundings. By unilaterally declaring an assault on national heritage, the NDMC certainly preserves itself as a vestige of the ‘old glory’ of colonialism, but we doubt if their brand of heritage conservation amounts to little else than rendering Rajpath as Pandara Road market.

On the question of competence, consider what the NDMC-CPWD-CM-LG combine (with which Mr. Correa’s predecessors have happily consorted) has delivered of late. Consider the disastrous Police Memorial on Shantipath, a travesty of every kind; the riotous Babu-baroque entry plaza at 10 Race Course Road, celebrating the rituals of access that shame Indian democracy; the warty-toad library that ruins the dignity of Sansad Bhavan; and the shit-brown public toilets that deface our every street, dressed in hoarding to justify idiocy with commerce. And what of the numerous unusable subways and other urban delights that daily confound the citizenry? Can we entrust national monuments to an agency whose own headquarters—the Town Hall complex on Sansad Marg—have been completed four decades late, and which now claims that it doesn’t need one of three building blocks and wants to rent it out as commercial space? This, in a project for which zoning and building regulations were bent over backwards, the Jantar Mantar was literally overshadowed and, de rigeur, extra multi-crores were spent on delayed construction.

Despite their failure to add anything of lasting value—most of today’s New Delhi was complete four decades ago—the NDMC-CPWD-CM-LG combine remains unquestioned by the public, and thus feels empowered to conjure at will. A frightening vision: a band of marauding agencies and their indulgent sponsors, rendered defunct by the shift of lucrative development to the extremities of the metropolis, poaching on the historic city for every morsel of sustenance. Look closely at the financial logic and you will find that such is the nature of this Rajpath folly.

You don’t need 37 crores for plumbing the porta-cabin public toilets (porta-cabins ‘restore lost glory’, now that’s news to me), or for ‘shifting flowerbeds’. These are trivial embellishments for a gross budget that will be dominated by the cost of permanent stands, by sandblasting the North and South blocks and cladding the ugly surrounding buildings with sandstone. Most probably, given the government’s way with budgets, this amount will turn out to be woefully inadequate, but that might be part of a larger design; i.e., to ask for more funds next year because prices have escalated, etc., etc and more sodden etc.

The ‘heavy’ items, as we call them in professional parlance. The bureaucrat’s new-found propensity for sandblasting might be guided by the needs of an agency that needs new contracts to repay the cost of equipment and know-how. Mind, you can’t sell sandblasting equipment in Gurgaon, and a report by an obliging ‘conservation expert’, who says that, without sandblasting, the North and South blocks will crumble, would be convenient. The same expert might also be urged to conclude that the Krishi, Udyog, Nirman and other bhavans are of outstanding architectural merit—scholarly evidence of that kind, if it existed, would be delightful reading—and deserve spanking new cladding, that too at a distance from Rajpath that renders only their tops visible, and the difference between stone and plaster indiscernible to most naked eyes.

What of bad precedents? An assault on Rajpath is an assault on the largest public space in the city and one of the most significant ones in the country. When the press naively carries the logic “New Beginning: No parking, stopping or hawking at Rajpath so that area is freed up for pedestrians” then we must fear for public space. The desire to have unified, ‘designed’ carts for the hawkers betrays a fascination with the kitsch of Dilli Haat, and a nagging itch, perhaps, to charge an entry-ticket to Rajpath. We might tolerate ham-handed journalism, but we cannot allow the NDMC to suggest that the transient population of citizens who gather peacefully every evening to enjoy ice-cream and chaat, to bounce balloons, and to coo in blissful proximity under a tree, are a threat to pedestrian space. They have already turned the radials from India Gate into commercial parking, a sick disfigurement of a monument to fallen Indian soldiers, and now these profiteers are running amok.

Not so long ago, the suggestion that Mahatma Gandhi’s statue should be placed inside the empty chhatri on Rajpath had even provoked an impassioned Parliamentary debate. Gandhi-in-imperial-cenotaph must have been an easier subject for waxing eloquence and posturing, because the NDMC’s evil designs have been afoot for a while now and no one—except the usual heritage types, ever willing to wear hearts on sleeves—has batted an eyelid. In the riot of plenitude and waste that is feel-good India, everything of enduring value is at risk of being debased by hasty planning and avaricious agency. Let it not be that an archeologist chancing upon the ruins of Delhi, finds that the British Raj was more accommodating of public interest than the democracy that replaced it.

Jagan Shah



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