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 But in a mistimed move, the nomination was recently withdrawn by the government, without explanation.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