“It is a rare privilege for a person to find himself in the position of a municipal councillor…,” reads a line by Mahatma Gandhi that is up on one of the outer walls of the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk, a building which was once the office of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
The engraving that lies beneath a portrait of Gandhi, unveiled by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950, adds: “… but let me note down for you as a man with some experience in public life that one indispensable condition of that privilege is that municipal councillors dare not approach their office from interested or selfish motives. They must approach their sacred task in a spirit of service.” The lines are engraved on the wall in English, Urdu and Hindi outside what was a meeting hall of the Delhi Municipal Committee, inaugurated in 1947.
Before it became the seat of local governance, the Town Hall building, constructed in the 1860s, housed what was known as the Lawrence Institute.
“In the 1860s, after the revolt of 1857, there was a sort of rebuilding in the city, even in cultural terms. One important centre for cultural and modern intellectual pursuits had been the Delhi College, which was destroyed due to the revolt. Then came the Lawrence Institute, which was a place that had a museum, a reading room, a municipal library,” said Swapna Liddle, historian and author.
The Town Hall building pre-dates local self-governance in Delhi. “Local governance itself came not too much but some time later,” Liddle said.
After the municipality was born, the Town Hall was bought by the municipality in 1866, according to Liddle’s book Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.
The Delhi Municipal Corporation came into being through the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act of 1957, which was passed with the intention of meeting “a need to have a unified body to administer the municipal government of Delhi”, according to the Act.
The Act specified the number of councillors to be 80 at the corporation’s establishment. The MCD will now have 250 councillors.
The local government in Delhi functioned out of the Town Hall till around 2009. The MCD’s Civic Centre building was inaugurated in 2010.
Mira Aggarwal, former Mayor of the erstwhile North Delhi Municipal Corporation, who was also the Deputy Mayor of the unified MCD in 1998, said, “It’s a beautiful building. The old municipality began from here. It was fairly spacious, but the meeting hall was too small for 250 or 270 councillors. For the growing needs of the city, it was not enough. The departments grew and there weren’t enough rooms. There was also the issue of traffic in the area, and getting to the building itself was a hassle. Sitting in the old hall had a royal feeling… the new office is more of an office.”
The Town Hall building, stuck in time, lies in the midst of what is a recently revamped Chandni Chowk.
The yellow of the walls is now peeling and the windows are partly broken. While the front façade faces the main road and a statue of Swami Shraddhanand, the entry into the building is now from its behind, close to what is now the Mahatma Gandhi park. A firetruck stands in the courtyard along with security personnel who said the building was now being used for “election-related” work.
The area in front of the Town Hall has been a place for protests, Liddle added. The clock tower, which once stood nearby, was also a centre of protests during the freedom struggle, while protests were held in the area later as well, since it was where the local government was.
“It’s time we thought about reinventing Town Hall. Maybe it’s time to think back to what it was as a place for cultural and intellectual activities, and a museum. It is protected under the heritage clause of the Delhi Building Byelaws. So, it’s a protected heritage building,” Liddle added.