Can town planners save Delhi's historic legacy amid frenzied redevelopment?

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
A perpetual dust haze hangs over Delhi. Every resident can point to at least one “development” project — digging, construction, road works — close to their homes. Sometimes this churn of projects leads to public transport marvels like the Delhi Metro. Other times, it can result in the towering monstrosity that is East Kidwai Nagar.

As one passes the bustling middle-class INA Market on the left and the craftsy Dilli Haat on the right, a vast complex of steel-and-glass-and-concrete rises up above you. Turn left, and a ghastly sight presents itself: a black-and-red façade glistening in the already too-oppressive Delhi sun. Signage in backlit red reads “Office Block-1” and “Office Block-2” in a typeface that literally spells out this merciless aesthetic. According to the town planners at the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC), the nodal body responsible for these large-scale redevelopment projects in Delhi, all of this represents the culture of a new New Delhi.

This part of New Delhi has seemingly been frozen in time, since its birth around a century ago. The fabled 26 sq km of “Lutyens’ Delhi”, with the grand seats of power and residences at the centre, around which radiated the more modest offices and residences of the country’s bureaucratic army, has changed little all these years. But change has now come and it’s stark. North of the Ring Road on Africa Avenue, grotesquely hollowed-out shells of government housing await metamorphosis into another mammoth stretch of steel, glass and concrete. The Pragati Maidan stretch on Mathura Road is being similarly “redeveloped”.  
It is interesting how un-Delhi this new aesthetic feels, despite the city not possessing a singular design language. With architecture from the Delhi Sultanate period to the Mughals and then the British Empire, the capital is a city made up of different historical tableaus. “Architecture was a way for a city’s rulers to impose their might. Where there is Shahjahanabad and its intricate houses, there is also the Town Hall that exemplifies the British culture of awe-inspiring building,” explains PSN Rao, chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC). The DUAC is a statutory body that evaluates all projects over 1,000 sq m in the National Capital Territory and advises the government on “preserving, developing and maintaining the aesthetic quality of urban and environmental design within Delhi”. 

After Empire came the democratic Indian state, creating buildings that reflected a Modernist aesthetic. Exposed concrete became a staple and the institutional area in Central Delhi such as the Mandi House circle is a prime example. Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh influenced architects like Raj Rewal in Delhi. The iconic Hall of Nations, the now-destroyed pyramid-like structure inside Pragati Maidan, was a significant example. In just a five-kilometre radius from the heart of the city, one can hop through different periods of architectural history, sometimes even separated by a century. The white colonnades of Connaught Place, the Mughal tombs and the whimsical shapes of the Modernist period all constitute a commons, a recognisable visual identity for public spaces.

Sarover Zaidi, a social anthropologist who writes extensively on cities, says that many architectural marvels were imagined without considering those who would people them. “The cold, Modernist, socialist buildings come from the idea of iconicity, about how the nation state wanted to represent itself in the Nehruvian era,” she says. And with iconicity comes exclusivity. “A city like Mumbai has a great equaliser in its sea faces. While Delhi has a lot of parks and monuments, it can still be very exclusivist with monumental public spaces becoming ticketed and gentrified,” she says.

The eye-catching — and jarring — office blocks in East Kidwai Nagar
But as India opened its economy in the 1990s, it also made Indian culture and architecture less insular. Well-travelled Indians renovated their bungalows with influences from, say, Spanish architecture, such as wrought-iron balconies, while their neighbours perhaps found beauty and familiarity in traditional Rajasthani jaali work. “When cultural isolation is disturbed, such changes are bound to happen and no country or city is truly immune to this. Delhi’s aesthetic, as with other cities in India, is now like a mixed vegetable dish,” explains DUAC’s Rao.

Privately owned buildings with their own concepts and affectations have made Delhi look more like a pastiche of aspirations rather than a contemporary city that respects its past. And now, this seems to ail public infrastructure, too. The East Kidwai Nagar block, for instance, is only the first of the eight redevelopment projects in Delhi, which involve razing low-rise government housing blocks and constructing high rises in their stead. “The 2021 Master Plan for Delhi, for instance, is very clear on a policy of redevelopment and redensification,” explains Rao. And given Delhi’s geographical constraints, Rao believes it is now time for the city to abandon its horizontal sprawl for tall new buildings.

Ugliness does not bother me so much because Delhiites have become used to it. The bigger problem is the thoughtlessness with which the city has developed in the past 25 to 30 years,” argues architect Gautam Bhatia. “All these big housing projects were an opportunity for the government to experiment with housing and incorporate the needs of the evolving Indian family,” he says. For instance, why should each house have its own garage? “You can have centralised parking after which one can walk to their apartment through an open landscape,” he says.

Bhatia also feels more public spaces need to be built to allow Delhiites to live in the city in the truest sense. “The [newly constructed] ITO pedestrian walkway is a banal concept and not only because of how it looks. Why not have a pedestrian zone that has a library or a restaurant along the way and that encourages people to walk?” he wonders. Bhatia believes that the defunct suburban ring railway network in Delhi can be used to recreate parks and open spaces for the city’s residents to have a cultural life outside of their homes. “It’s not as if we lack imagination. What we lack is bureaucratic will,” he asserts.

Delhi’s unique multi-agency, multi-government structure also does not help matters. The Delhi Development Authority is a central government body, while the municipal bodies that give out clearances for smaller projects are Delhi government units. For instance, the Delhi government initiated the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project without clearance from the DUAC. It took petitions in the Delhi High Court by urban planners, who protested against a plan to create toilets and place electricity transformers in the median of the road, for the project to be re-evaluated. Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, who chaired a recent meeting for this project, has now directed stakeholders such as electricity supplier BSES and the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to review the spaces occupied by their infrastructure.

The dystopian current landscape of Pragati Maidan. Photos: Dalip Kumar
Besides warring agencies, Delhi and its residents also seem to be battling a historically vibrant past with an ever-changing present. Traders in Chandni Chowk, for instance, reportedly expressed resentment about the objections raised by heritage experts for this project. When the India Trade Promotion Organisation announced its plan to raze the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan and create a 7,000-seater convention centre in its place, historians and conservationists were outraged at the destruction of Delhi’s built heritage. But experts such as Rao feel that the nostalgia may have been misguided. “The Hall of Nations does not fall under any prescribed heritage category. More money was being spent on keeping its outdated cooling system running,” he points out. “Every city is constantly evolving. Every civilisation left its imprint on Delhi and the current civilisation is doing the same thing. Today, the urban aesthetic is representative of new technology and new building materials,” he adds. “Who knows, all these flyovers may one day become redundant because people may have by then relinquished their cars for the Metro.”

And yet, built heritage isn’t Delhi’s only link to history — its trees are equally important. The stretch along Mathura Road now looks barren, bald and bare, presenting a dystopic new view of a city known for its green cover. Environmentalists raised concerns over how the NBCC felled trees to create urban infrastructure that would put even greater pressure — in terms of water consumption, sewage and traffic — on Delhi’s limited public resources. Ironically, the East Kidwai Nagar “model” project has now become a lesson in how not to implement large-scale infrastructure project. The Delhi High Court on May 15 asked the NBCC how its projects got clearances from different authorities despite independent researchers raising red flags about traffic congestion and the ecological impact on the city. The NBCC was not available for comment. 

For its part, the DUAC under Rao has re-examined NBCC’s redevelopment projects for Delhi’s seven colonies — Nauroji Nagar, Netaji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Sriniwaspuri and Mohammadpur. Rao says the number of trees that will need to be cut for these projects has been vastly reduced and certain critical modifications have been made keeping functionality in mind. But this still may not ensure a genuine urban commons for Delhi yet. 

“As a country, we are obsessed with the maximum output with minimum money and time spent. Building heritage that lasts requires patronage, patience and vision,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. “Several large cities such as Dwarka and Rohini have been created in Delhi since Independence and none of them exhibits any single, grand vision,” he adds. According to Nanda, new projects, for instance, could have integrated planning, design, vision and sensibility, but they frittered this opportunity away. 

The nostalgic Delhiite spars with his inner new economy rival and the capital gets ready for a glass-and-metal skyline. There’s no escaping it.

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