Our society has an ambivalent attitude towards the protection of architectural heritage. On the one hand we are justifiably proud of the diverse and abundant evidence of our ancient civilisation, on the other we often prevaricate unjustifiably when it comes to protecting it. The most common rationalisation against conservation pits the imperatives of development against those of conservation, but there are other, more insidious, prejudices rooted in majoritarian political or cultural ideologies that determine which buildings should be protected. Of course, one could argue that in an economically developing and culturally transforming society such contestations are to be expected, but in the last year in particular, the anti-conservation attitudes have hardened and government policies have become a veritable assault on architectural heritage. Given our past commitment to conserving our historic monuments and the plural nature of what was conserved, this was hardly expected.
In May 2015, the Central government summarily withdrew, without consulting the project proponents, the government of Delhi, the application it had submitted to nominate Delhi to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Cities. The state government had viewed the nomination as a strategy to boost tourism and strengthen the economic base of Delhi while simultaneously enhancing its image as the iconic capital of India. The newly elected Central government, however, viewed it, naively, as anti-development. Perhaps the withdrawal also addressed other unstated political agendas like demonstrating the primacy of its political powers to the provocative posturing of the state government while appeasing its electoral constituency by overtly opposing the historic significance of the two particular sites that were identified for nomination, the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad and the colonial imperial city of New Delhi.
Since the withdrawal of the nomination, the Central government has reinforced its opposition to the significance of architectural heritage of the city by introducing three policy initiatives in the guise of promoting “development”.
First, it instructed the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) to review the protection mechanism of the erstwhile imperial city, the so-called Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) and propose fresh guidelines for its re-development. This initiative catered to the sentiments of both the anti-colonial and the pro-development lobbies to justify what would otherwise be considered an act of vandalism anywhere else in the world. The new DUAC guidelines have been cleverly formulated with a nod to legal procedure but following the ubiquitous bureaucratic traditions of opacity in decision-making. These guidelines would effectively transform the architectural heritage of the LBZ that professional bodies of architects, urban designers, landscape architects and conservation architects had strongly petitioned the DUAC to protect.
Second, the Central government has become adamant in wanting to demolish the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan to build a “world-class” convention centre. The Hall of Nations is internationally recognised as an extraordinary example of modern Indian architecture. It is among the buildings that the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has proposed to the DUAC and the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) for recognition as the modern architectural heritage of Delhi. All over the world there is a realisation that if significant examples of modern architecture are not protected then the modern segment of the historical narrative of architectural development would be lost to future generations. In India, INTACH proposed that the important examples of modern Indian architecture of Delhi should be protected, particularly because Delhi has been a fertile site of post-Independence architectural development, critically appreciated not only in India but internationally. Sixty-two buildings, including Akbar Bhavan, Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, Crafts Museum, Bahai Temple, Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion, were on the proposed list. Both the DUAC and the HCC, who are answerable to the Central government, are however dragging their feet, perhaps as a disingenuous strategy to enable the development of the new convention centre at Pragati Maidan to become a fait accompli.
Third, the Central government now proposes to bypass all existing processes and civil society actors who are involved in conserving the architectural heritage of Delhi by empowering the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), an institution unambiguously controlled by the Central government, to take charge. The DDA issued a public notice on March 30, 2016, in which it announced that it has set up the Delhi Urban Heritage Foundation to “recommend for alteration, modification or relax provision of existing regulations…” on matters related to Delhi’s architectural heritage thus making it the final arbiter on the subject.
Independently, each policy initiative does not appear threatening, but seen together a pattern emerges that is an assault on the architectural heritage of Delhi. Perhaps in the context of the many other important issues confronting the city and civil society, this assault does not grab the attention of the media or the stakeholders, but the point I would like to highlight is it is symptomatic of the larger absence of public discourse in the formulation of public policy that has become worrisome. And as far as architectural heritage is concerned it makes official our society’s incipient ambivalence towards its protection.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Losing the past’)