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Will heritage status freeze Imperial Delhi?

Five months from now, Delhi faces a crucial decision that could determine its future and the manner in which it preserves its past. In June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) will announce whether Delhi has made the cut as India’s first world heritage city. The city has been preparing for inscription in the World Inhabited Historic Towns list for over five years now. In January last year, it was finally selected over Mumbai as India’s official nomination for the tag. If it makes it to the list, Delhi is bound to attract more tourists than it does now.

But just when everything seemed to be going well, a problem has cropped up. The Union ministry of urban development has raised questions about Delhi’s pitch for the heritage status, fearing that it could restrict the manner in which urban development is permitted within the city.

The Delhi government has done its groundwork well. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), which has prepared the Unesco nomination dossiers on behalf of the state government, has proposed the “Imperial Cities of Delhi” comprising two components – the walled city of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi, and the area of New Delhi designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens – for inclusion in the list of World Inhabited Historic Towns. In its pitch, Intach notes that Delhi, which has been inhabited since the Stone Age, is not one but eight cities that were built over centuries adjacent to one another “instead of over one another as it is commonly encountered to form historical layering”.

The first city was Lal Kot, founded by the Tomar dynasty in 1060 AD. The second was Siri, established during the Delhi Sultanate. Then came Tughlaqabad, founded by the first Tughlaq king, Ghiyasuddin. Later, Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq linked the cities of Lal Kot and Siri with two walls to build Jahanpanah, the fourth city. Next came Firozabad on the banks of the river Yamuna. And in 1533 AD, Mughal emperor Humayun built Dinpanah, the sixth city of Delhi. Over a century later, in 1639 AD, Shah Jahan built Shahjahanabad, the seventh city, which remained the capital of the Mughal empire until 1857, when the British government took control. In 1911, when the British shifted their capital from Kolkata to Delhi, New Delhi, the eighth city to the south-west of Shahjahanabad, was born.

It is the last two “cities” that have been marked out for inclusion in the Unesco heritage list. The overall nominated area measures 26.40 square kilometres, about 1.8 per cent of the total area of 1,483 square kilometres of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Both Shahjahanabad and New Delhi “were conceived and built as imperial cities to rule sub-continental empires,” reads the Intach note. And both had distinctive styles of architecture.

The medieval architecture of Delhi drew from Turkish, Timurid, Central Asian and Persian sources. It was neither “Hindu” nor “Muslim”, but an innovative mix of technologies and motifs. Lutyens too drew from motifs and forms that existed during the Mughal era and in ancient Buddhist sites and “introduced these into the powerful tradition of classism prevalent in the West at that time”. The result was a fusion of buildings with beautiful vistas and sprawling gardens.

‘All heritage cities saw development’

India is already home to 32 of Unesco’s 1,000-odd World Heritage Sites, of which the Red Fort in Old Delhi is one of them. “But there are also about 220 world heritage cities and none of them is in India,” says A G K Menon, convener of the Delhi chapter of Intach. The urban development ministry, he says, had concerns that if these areas of Delhi are declared as world heritage cities, it would restrict urban development in these areas. “This worry is misplaced,” he says, adding that the ministry’s concerns have been addressed and Delhi is going ahead with its nomination. “Look at Venice, Rome and Cairo, all of which are world heritage cities. All these cities developed and added new buildings,” he says. Only one concern has to be kept in kind: any development would have to be sympathetic to the heritage concept. Under the 1972 Unesco Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, development has to be sensitive to and in sync with the heritage. The architecture and materials used for construction will have to be in consonance with the heritage character of the place. “For example, you cannot suddenly construct a multi-storey building next to Rashtrapati Bhavan,” says Menon. The convention is interpreted as “a treaty that has become the foremost international legal tool in support of the conservation of the world’s cultural and natural heritage”. The site reviews of the nominated areas, meanwhile, have already taken place.

The urban development ministry did not respond to email queries on this matter. M Ramachandran, former secretary, ministry of urban development, however, expresses concerns similar to those raised by the ministry. “If this heritage city status means freezing all development to retain the character of those zones, then it is very problematic,” he says. The Lutyens’ Delhi bungalow zone, according to him, currently has a very low population density, and it would make sense to utilise the space better by creating more housing here. It’s also still unclear whether the bungalows will be a part of the heritage zone or whether the heritage area will be restricted to the North Block, South Block and Rashtrapati Bhavan, he says. “You have to separate architecture character from old-world charm. Besides, these structures, especially the bungalows and the houses in Old Delhi, need to be checked for earthquake resistance and other safety hazards.”

A conservationist who does not want to be named says the proposal has come too late in the day. In the last 30-40 years, Old Delhi has become utterly chaotic, says the conservationist. Chandni Chowk, the 1.6-km-long ceremonial pathway, Daryaganj, the “mart by the river”, Kinari Bazaar, or the sequin market, and the network of mohallas (neighbourhoods), are today immensely crowded areas where humans jostle for space with carts and rickshaws. Signs of lost heritage peep through the maze of dilapidated buildings and dangerously hanging overhead wires. The sounds and sights of the past have been consumed by modern chaos.

“It’s impossible to compare any of this with Venice or Florence or any of the other heritage cities that transport you to another time zone, yet are modern with all contemporary amenities,” says a conservation architect. “While cities like Paris have managed to balance a metropolitan development agenda with their heritage city status, a similar balance might be difficult to achieve in Delhi, especially since the two core zones are scattered across the city,” adds Ramachandran. “In any case, such comparisons are not fair since buildings there have an architectural uniformity. How will you tackle the many houses that have come up around these structures and are completely inconsonant with the design sensibility of that zone?” He cites the example of Connaught Place, which is surrounded by high-rises. “These have nothing to do with the Victorian colonnades that define Connaught Place,” he adds.

Menon is, however, convinced that Delhi has what it takes to be a heritage city. “So far there have been random declarations such as, ‘Let’s turn Delhi into Shanghai or Singapore’. We are Delhi. Why don’t we make Delhi like Delhi?” he says. A heritage status for the city, he says, would change the paradigm of heritage as we know it. “So far we have only considered monument-related heritage. But imagine the sense of pride in having a city with a world heritage tag.” And though Unesco does not really provide funding, he says if these areas earn a heritage status, tourism is bound to increase and there is bound to be economic gain. The Unesco website, meanwhile, says that “a country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites”. The third advantage, Menon says, is that urban planning will then be better thought out.

Who will do what?

Confusion, however, prevails among the other stakeholders like the civic bodies, Delhi Development Authority (DDA), New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). The nominated area of Shahjahanabad is administered by MCD and that of Lutyens’ Delhi by NDMC.

NDMC is worried about the maintenance of these zones should the status be granted by Unesco. “We are not clear about who will manage the upkeep of such zones, especially because these are not purely monuments, but also include residential and commercial buildings,” says an official, requesting anonymity. Officials at DDA are also fuzzy about how development would go hand in hand with preservation and conservation. A senior DDA official says that while the housing authority has little to do with the heritage tag for Delhi, there is confusion about how permissions for new projects will be given out. “Will this mean that no new structures can be constructed near the heritage zones? If that is the case, then we must reconsider this move,” says the official.

As it stands, the nomination is on. But whether Delhi will make the cut is a big question. And then there are even bigger questions on what happens if Delhi does make it to the list.


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