Architect-urban designer Ranjit Sabikhi has been designing buildings for nearly six decades. His latest book A Sense of Place (Harper Collins; 2019) testifies to the way Indian cities have changed and what it means to our lives. In this interview, he reflects on a post-Covid landscape, the crisis in urban design and why DDA should do an inventory of their buildings.
How do we plan our public spaces better in a Covid world?
Urban designers have a very important role to play, provided our politicians and civil servants decide to really take note of the issues that have been raised by the Covid crisis, and allow significant changes to be made both in the planning process and the process of implementation. Change is required not only in the planning of public spaces but also in the conditions in which the urban poor, who constitute more than 55 per cent of our urban population, currently live. Apart from cramped living spaces and inadequate hygiene, there is a severe lack of open space where they can relax, and where their children can play.
The bulk of land within almost all urban areas is cornered by development for the middle and upper income groups and the space available for the economically weaker section of society is less than 15 per cent of the total built-up area. In the post-Covid pandemic era, if repeated epidemics are to be avoided, it will be necessary to plan on a more generous basis. Instead of deriving maximum return from the sale of land, a process of cross subsidisation will need to be established. Revenue from the development of land for the upper and middle sections of society will need to be invested in the provision of proper living conditions with adequate open space for the urban poor, along with proper community facilities like schools, health centres and shopping areas. The development should be planned in such a manner that there is adequate space to allow it to grow and change over time as the economic conditions of the residents improve. In short, such settlements should ultimately integrate with the larger urban area in all respects.
Where do you think we went wrong with our city planning all these years?
The basic flaws in the case of the Delhi Master Plans was firstly the fact that it adopted regulations based on a system of post-war planning in Europe, which divided the city into blocks, within which a series of plots were demarcated, each with a specified land use and a system of setbacks. The fact that in our traditional towns there was a close relationship between the place of residence and the place of work was ignored. Over time, changes began to happen in response to need, despite land-use stipulations. This is a process that kept on multiplying and as a result the concerned authorities kept on issuing different Change of Use notifications, which today has reached a point where the original Master Plan documents have become meaningless. One only hopes that with the Delhi Master Plan 2041 — which is to be notified this year — the complete approach to planning will be changed, with much more active involvement of qualified professionals, and a more flexible system of planning. Unfortunately, the attitude adopted by the concerned authorities in relation to the large-scale public outcry for the Central Vista Redevelopment does not give much hope.
In your recent book, A Sense of Place, you call Mumbai a city while Delhi is a series of scattered settlements. What characteristics of each distinguishes them from one another?
This was an observation based on how different the two cities were in the mid-50s. Bombay was the established commercial centre of the country. It had a diverse population with large number of people from different parts of the country. In those days, people identified themselves with the city, and not with the states that they came from. This vast ethnic group was truly integrated, and was not what it became later as a centre for Maharashtra and its state-oriented politics. Similarly, the physical form of the city was clearly defined as an island with the sea on all sides. The commercial centre in South Bombay clustered around the Fort area, the Port and Harbour area on the sheltered East waterfront, and the Mill Areas in the centre. Overall development was compact and the city ended in the north at Santa Cruz and Juhu Beach. It had a well-developed public transport system with an efficient bus service, and electric train services. Compared to this, Delhi at that time, in the period soon after Partition, consisted of the walled city of Shahjahanabad and the British settlement of Lutyens’ New Delhi. Around the peripheries were settlements and colonies that had been hastily developed for large numbers of refugees that had doubled the population of the city overnight to 10 lakh people. At that point, many parts of the city consisted of disconnected residential areas stretching outwards in all directions. With the steady growth of population, it later developed the cohesive form that you now see.
You speak of spaces between buildings. Why are they important to a city?
They’re important because this is the area where people interact with each other. Such areas vary from the narrow areas where residents meet and communicate, and areas where children play. Then there are communal areas, where there are shops that meet basic needs, and community spaces for larger gatherings. All these different open spaces go together to make the city. If all such spaces are only along roads dominated by traffic, it cuts across basic communal interaction. Even in residential complexes if such spaces are free of traffic they become areas where people meet and interact with each other. The pedestrian space between the residential buildings at Yamuna Apartments is an example of the importance of such space.
Do you think we could have imagined our cities differently instead of a single town planning model that’s been adopted across the country?
Quite definitely. There is a large variety in the architecture and urban design of the towns and cities in different parts of the country. The cities of Rajasthan are quite different from the temple towns of south India, and also from the settlements in Kerala. Most of them were developed in close relation to the nature of the land, and the prevailing culture and beliefs of these areas. I believe not only is it possible but also necessary to build in a sensitive response to these traditional values, instead of creating a bland uniform architecture and urban design as is currently being developed in many countries across the world. As far as the 1962 Delhi Master Plan is concerned, if there had been sufficient awareness of the close relationship between the place of work and residence in all our older cities, they could have consciously allowed for mixed use in specific locations instead of single-use zoning in all areas. The later introduction of arbitrary changes without detailed planning and urban design has created havoc in many areas. Unfortunately, not only have we not learned from other failed master plans, we have not even today learned from the actual failures on the ground in the implementation of the last three Delhi Master plans.
The Lutyens’ plan presents a “wasteful idea of urban living”, with its large houses and generous lawns. New Moti Bagh is a more recent example. How did we get there?
We must remember that Lutyens’ plan was conceived to meet the needs of the British elite — the Imperial rulers of the country. For them, this was a replication of the country estates in UK on a smaller scale. After Independence, our senior civil services as well as the new ministers moved into these luxurious premises. By this time, over a period of 30 years, the trees had grown and it was a luscious green area. Our ministers and babus soon got used to these luxurious premises, and have been loath to give it up ever since. Several studies and proposals were drawn up to add more dwelling units within the vast compounds, but were strongly resisted by the incumbents and all such proposals were simply side-lined. As the numbers of ministers and senior civil servants increased, there was a need for more houses for them. They could not, however, be demoted to a more basic level as compared to their counterparts living in the Lutyens Zone. So New Moti Bagh and its luxurious houses, on extremely high value land, was created as an appeasement for them.
If DDA did an inventory of its buildings, it would see that numerous buildings lie unoccupied, which is a waste of money and poor planning. Instead of building more new buildings in the city, can we reuse what we have? Isn’t it time to upcycle our buildings, as every other industry is doing, be it fashion or IT.
You are quite right, DDA should carry out an inventory of their buildings and consider using the unoccupied buildings. The fact however is that DDA does not even have a proper record of their land ownership across the city. To this date they do not have an updated and accurate survey plan of the land that they own. Witness the case of the unauthorised colonies for which surveys have to be carried out now to accurately delineate pockets of land, before proper ownership documents may be issued to the occupants. DDA behaves worse than any miserly landlord. They believe it is their right to take maximum advantage of the lands and buildings that they own and do not accept that they are holding all this in public trust. These properties in fact belong to the general public. Empty buildings could be used to house the urban poor, but they would never let them occupy it for fear of losing them. Ultimately, it is the government of which DDA is a part, that is responsible for this state of affairs.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines