A Disservice To Delhi

Withdrawal of the Unesco nomination is misguided and ill-timed.

Written by Gautam Bhatia | Published: May 30, 2015 12:00 am
delhi, delhi unesco, delhi heritage, unesco heritage sites, unesco heritage sites india, india unesco heritage sites, indian express, editorials, india news, delhi news, world news Why the withdrawal? Was it part of some grand design to convert Delhi’s Lutyens zone into a future Shanghai? Or was it motivated by the politician-builder nexus that would like a free hand in billion-dollar real estate deals in the heart of Delhi? (File – Red Fort (above), a monument built in the Mughal era)

If you look outside your hotel window in central Istanbul, the sightline gives you an unencumbered picture of its public life, street culture, homes, monuments, parks and bridges. In the visible city lie all the daily aspirations of its citizens, along with the invitation to experience its public life. Look outside a Delhi window and you are immediately aware of the degraded life of urban India — illegal buildings encroaching on public land, smoke-filled skies, telephone lines, rubble on roads, unfinished housing, tenements leaning against boundary walls — a wasted place, without urban values or the will to govern.

In an attempt to partially change the Delhi view into Istanbul’s, an active campaign was being waged by Intach and the Delhi government. After four years of deliberations with the ministries of culture and urban development, the dossier was duly sent to Unesco for approval. The inclusion of Delhi in the Unesco list of heritage sites would have helped preserve the city’s architectural character and green status. But in a mistimed move, the nomination was recently withdrawn by the government, without explanation.

The withdrawal comes at a time when Delhi is at its beleaguered worst. Since 1970, the city’s population has doubled, but its area increased a mere 23 per cent. Most of that increase occurred in slums and unrecognised pockets. Two decades earlier, the informal space was more open, accommodating and hygienic. Parks and streets had substantial green cover, sidewalks were used for walking. Today, every bit of public space is overrun by vehicles and habitation. Sixty per cent of the capital’s ground space is both “recognised” and “illegal” slums — a figure expected to reach 90 per cent within a decade.

In view of its growing numbers and the local government’s inability to enforce urban norms, the Unesco heritage tag was critical. The city’s incapacity to govern itself was to be farmed out to an international organisation that would have ensured growth in consonance with other world heritage cities — like Istanbul, Cairo, the historic centres of Rome, Florence and Old Havana.

Why the withdrawal? Was it part of some grand design to convert Delhi’s Lutyens’ zone into a future Shanghai? Or was it motivated by the politician-builder nexus that would like a free hand in billion-dollar real estate deals in the heart of Delhi? Since only Lutyens’ Delhi and Shahjahanabad were to be included in the heritage tag, suspicion mounts. That the heritage tag would hamper urban development was the only explanation offered. The importance of future growth seemed to outweigh the colonial and Mughal characteristics that give Delhi a unique aura.

Indian urbanity survives at the extremes: the city sees a frenetic demolition and rebuilding, with pockets of monuments in an unchanging state of stagnant preservation. The Unesco tag would have staged a more democratic middle ground, mapping historical quarters, establishing urban cultural values and also allowing for a controlled framework of rebuilding and redevelopment. Judicious additions in the old quarters of Cairo and Havana have not only accommodated population increase but have done so in ways that highlight the historic setting.

In India, it’s a matter of national shame that so little of the country’s urban heritage is preserved. Whether Bangalore, Jaipur or Lucknow, any drive from the still beautiful countryside is a ride into the same repeat of squalor and architectural despair, everything subsumed in dust and in a ramshackle state that signals an urbanity built in a poverty of ideas. No public places, no greens. Just a city of boundary walls, insecurity and self-protection. In such a scenario, heritage becomes the only real modulation for the citizen’s engagement with the city’s public life.

Though the withdrawal of the Unesco nomination seems an ominous blow to Delhi’s heritage, there exist other more modest reminders of India’s urban history — the colonial heritage of Mumbai and Kolkata, the traditional architecture in Udaipur, Jodhpur, Lucknow and smaller towns, rural homes in Kutch, Himachal and Kashmir, tribal hamlets in Odisha, Bihar and elsewhere. The government’s comprehension of the importance of these places can only come about with a thoughtful conservation approach, which recognises their cultural meaning in the lives of residents and frames a policy appropriate for their protection.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect

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    Kiran Kalamdani
    Jun 1, 2015 at 8:58 am
    The Jnnurm was the first ever comprehensive and coordinated "attempt" at bringing order to our overcrowded villages in search of towns and cities that now gets transformed into Amrut or Smart cities movement for a select 100. Indian cities and towns are adolescent kids not knowing what is happening to themselves when compared to the more mature villages that are like the older great gfathers. The father of our nation who we like to put on pedestals and frames in every government office gave a clarion call to look at the villages seriously which we didn't and still don't. The small and medium towns movement is on nobody's agenda as it is not glamorous enough. UNESCO recognition does not mean much beyond a slight pressure and recognition and guidelines most of which we cannot or do not follow. A more concerted and comprehensive approach that is all- encomping is needed without external pressures. Can we organize ourselves to look reality in the face and meet it?
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      anandap
      May 30, 2015 at 8:37 am
      We are a people do not know how to conserve and preserve heritage and inheritance. A famous doctor who developed first cheap heart valve in India, in his keynote address, in a conference a decade ago, mentioned about our poor character of inheriting invaluable heritage sites and insutions. That Is why we could not rejuvenate Thakshila or Nalanda like projects. Without zone level development all Indian cities are becoming uninhabitable and mushrooming slums, which are protected for vote bank, by crooked politicians along with the support mafia led real estate groups. This group will never tolerate reason and logic, have every power to scuttle any genuine reforms and for this we have a specialized corrupt, ill equipped, unprofessional urban affairs ministry to support.
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        anandap
        May 30, 2015 at 8:30 am
        We are a people do not know how to preserve heritage and inheritance. A famous doctor who developed first cheap heart valve in India, in his keynote address, in a conference a decade ago, mentioned about our poor character of inheriting invaluable heritage sites. That Is why we could not rejuvenate Thakshila or Nalanda like projects. Without zone level development all Indian cities are becoming uninhabitable and mushrooming slums, which are protected for vote bank, by crooked politicians along with the support mafia led real estate groups. This group will never tolerate reason and logic, have every power to scuttle any genuine reforms.
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          Dr Motilal
          May 30, 2015 at 5:37 am
          India needs to demonstrate its rightful presence by taking responsibilities in UN organizations .
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            Richard Nicholas
            May 30, 2015 at 6:20 am
            Our Delhi not getting unescod! Well we as a people must put people first not buildings and sites and stones! First let us be a clean at heart people, clean in spirit and clean in our thoughts forone another,our homes,our colonies our Kane's and finally our Delhi..patient to our neighbours on the road and in our lanes! Once we how we think of each other ,the care and love that is required to create a Delhi that can be listed like our IGI Airport,the best in the world and with a Unesco !
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