The New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC) has emerged post-budget with pockets full. Over a few weeks, it has announced new projects worth around Rs 100 crore, and newer ones are revealed daily. We are told it has a project for Rajpath, the central axis of New Delhi’s baroque plan. For the sum of Rs 37 crores, it envisages permanent seating for viewers of the Republic Day parade, new parking, new benches, kerb stones and flowerbeds, new signages, new ‘concrete’ bridges over flowing waterways, new public toilets and new sandstone cladding for buildings abutting this supposedly ailing axis.There is mention of the removal of hawkers.
Three questions beg an urgent response: Is the project necessary; Is the interested agency competent; Does it set regrettable precedents? On the very first count, this project fails justification. Do we need permanent seating tiers for a spectacle that lasts a single day, because the Chief Minister believes the grass gets ruined? It is grass, a hardy rhizomatic plant, easily coaxed to recovery by an able horticulture department. How will the stands be used post Republic Day?
Entrusted with an aged city, NDMC grabs at heritage conservation as an easy excuse. A senior official tells The Indian Express (4th March 2005) that the ‘extensive makeover’ and ‘revamping’ of the Central Vista would ‘‘bring the area back to its old glory’’. Let us overlook his ignorance. Restoring the original would require the removal of most post-1947 buildings on and near Rajpath, such as the Meridian Hotel, which emerged unscathed from controversy to conspicuously dwarf its surroundings. Let us grant that one of the lasting legacies of the ‘old glory’ is the NDMC itself. But how do we prevent the NDMC from treating national heritage as a shopping plaza, from rendering Rajpath as Pandara Road Market?
On the question of competence, consider what the NDMC-DUAC-CPWD-CM combine has delivered of late. Consider the disastrous Police Memorial on Shanti Path, a travesty of every kind; the riotous Babu-baroque entry plaza at 10 Race Course Road, celebrating the rituals of access that shame Indian democracy; the Parliament Library that ruins the dignity of Sansad Bhavan; and the brown public toilets that deface our every street, dressed in hoardings to justify idiocy with commerce. And what of the numerous unusable subways and other urban delights that daily confound the citizenry? Can we entrust national monuments to any agency whose own headquarters— the Town Hall complex on Sansad Marg—have been completed four decades late, and which now claims that it doesn’t need one of three building blocks and wants to rent it out as commercial space? This, in a project for which zoning and building regulations were bent over backwards, the Jantar Mantar was literally overshadowed and, de rigeur, extra multi-crores were spent on delayed construction.
Despite their failure to add anything of lasting value — most of today’s New Delhi was complete four decades ago — the NDMC remains unquestioned by the public, and thus feels empowered to conjure at will. A frightening vision: a band of marauding agencies, rendered defunct by the shift of lucrative development to the extremities of the metropolis, poaching on the historic city for every morsel of sustenance. Look closely at the financial logic and you will find that such is the nature of this project.You don’t need 37 crores for plumbing the porta-cabin public toilets (porta-cabins ‘restore lost glory’, now that’s news to me!), or for ‘shifting flowerbeds’.
The bureaucrat’s new-found propensity for sandblasting might be guided by the needs of an agency that needs new contracts to repay the cost of equipment and know-how. Mind, you can’t sell sand blasting equipment in Gurgaon, and a report by an obliging ‘conservation expert’, who says that, without sandblasting, North and South blocks will crumble, would be convenient. The same expert might also be urged to conclude that the Krishi, Udyog, Nirman and other bhavans are of outstanding architectural merit and deserve spanking new cladding, that too at a distance from Rajpath that renders only their tops visible.
An assault on Rajpath is an assault on the largest public space in the city. When the press naively carries the logic ‘‘New Beginning: No parking, stopping or hawking at Rajpath so that area is freed up for pedestrians’’ then we must fear for public space. The desire to have unified, ‘designed’ carts for the hawkers betrays a fascination with Dilli Haat, and a desire, perhaps, to keep the public at bay by charging an entry-ticket to Rajpath. Can we let the NDMC suggest that the transient population of citizens who gather peacefully every evening to enjoy ice-cream and chaat, to play with balloons, and to coo peacefully, are eating up pedestrian space? Must they grab all opportunities for profit, as they have done by turning the radials from India Gate into commercial parking lots, a sick misuse of a monument to fallen Indian soldiers?
Not so long ago, the suggestion that Mahatma Gandhi’s statue should be placed inside the empty chhatri on Rajpath had provoked an impassioned Parliamentary debate. Gandhi-in-imperial-cenotaph must have been an easier subject for waxing eloquent. In the riot of plenitude and waste that is feel-good India, everything of enduring value is at risk of being debased by hasty planning and avaricious agency.
Let it not be that an archeologist chancing upon the ruins of Delhi, finds that the British Raj was more accommodating of public interest that the democracy that replaced it.
The writer is an architect, historian and director of Urban Futures Initiative
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