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Reflecting on Delhi's architectural past

Reflecting on Delhi’s architectural past

Behind the seductive brochures of medieval forts is a city of conflicting stories. Where chai wallahs are photo-shopped out of the A city “masquerading as a great metropolis” says Bharat Chaturvedi (Finding Delhi: Loss and renewal in a mega city). It has no soul said Surbi, an artist friend from Bhopal. She preferred the art scene of Mumbai.

Perhaps it has lost its soul along with the loss of historic delicate havelis.

During the 2010 Commonwealth Games the carts of wallahs vying for trade, so much a part of the real India, were moved out, even banned from Old Delhi. Betrayed by the need to appear modern. Worry abut “what will foreigners think” about potholes when for decades no one cared about the life of the locals.

Did tourists come to see India or its Disney-fication? Why hide the beauty of common people under a Western facade that camouflaged the beauty of this country I love?

Was it necessary to pave streets in stone – so glorious to look on – that prevents water seeping into Delhi’s dwindling water table? Was it necessary to rush flyovers so poorly planned the free flowing traffic became bottlenecks even death traps?

Was it necessary to put the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane in the middle of roads and clog traffic? (Actually, I think it was. The need to discourage traffic in Delhi is an important pollution issue, but also a cause of near social war!)

The facade did not hold, incomplete work by a corrupt system soon moved the media at first bustling with pride to cry in shame  of financial mishandling. Meanwhile, most sports loving tourists enjoyed themselves.

Cities are unbelievably complex. They are not just bricks and mortar. A city is not the aspirations of corporations that rarely consider what people would want to call their home. Cities are memories of family, and history, of loves gained and lost. Cities grow organically, they need a planned infrastructure that alows people to contribute and recreate their life.

But Why? A little developmental history


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Perhaps this only extended the trend begun by Britain in 1911 to 1937 founding of New Delhi. The poor migrants of that new city, now wage workers in construction or as coolies were forced rent in the dilapidated katras of the walled city. It became so congested  that it was a focal point for nationalists and the British were forced to act but was reluctant to spend money on ‘native’ areas. “In spite of the consistently hiigh level of frustration at their failure to reverse the process of environmental degradation, the colonial agency never questioned the shibboleth that urban development should be driven by profit and prestige motives of the dominant classes.” (Sandeeep Hazeerasingh, 2001,’ColonialModernism and their flawed paradigms of Urban renerawl in Bombay, 1900-1925‘ Urban History, Vol 28,No.2, pp 242 in A.Sharan, 2006 ‘In the city,out of place: Environment and modenity, Delhi 1860s to1960’s‘,Economic and political weekly, 25 November, Vol 41, No. 47, pp 4905-11.) 

We cannot deny the impact refugees flooding to Delhi after Partition, and a reformist industrial agenda.

The First Five Year Plan saw slums as ‘a national problem’  and a ‘disgrace to the country’. The Second Five Year Plan for ‘balanced’ and ‘orderly’ development included resettlement with ‘minimum dislocation’ that rehoused people from slums as near as possible to their existing employment. The focus was on environmental conditions and not the legality or absence of the settlements . It seems the policy was ‘followed more in violation than compliance’  observed Lalit Batra (‘Out of sight, out of mind: Slum dwellers in ‘World Class” Delhi‘ in Bhrarat Chaturvedi).

Haphazard and unplanned growth was starkly revealed when in 1955 700 people died of jaundice.

Indira Gandhis suspending Constitutional freedoms in the Emergency allowed for attacking the contraditictio of Delhis actual versus planned city.

Large scale and brutal clearing of Delhi Development authority to evict over 150,000 squatter families from the inner city.

DDA chairman Jagmohan was unapolgetic of his plan to build an ideal city, that imparted urbanity and civility, epairing the Walled City being destroyed by ‘the flood of migrants and squatter’ who ‘like a plague or some other kind of fever will cripple and kill Shahjahanabad.”

At Turkman Gate in 1976, 12 people were killed by police for protesting at their home demolition.

Relocations stopped for two decades after the Indira Gandhi’s 1979 electoral defeat with a shift to slum improvement.

What has changed notably since is the effect of liberalisation and globalisation from the 1990’s. The growing middle class see slums as both a legal and environmental issue, which bourgeoisie environmentalists claimed denied ‘citizens’  the legitimate right to the city.

‘Citizen’ should be understood to mean property owners.

As the economy grew so did inner city land values.

Squatting, sice inherently illegal, an ‘unscrupulus element’ that was odered to be removed by the High Court in 2003.

The ironic twist is that – especially since the Commonwealth Games – the middle class want their cheap maids and labourers while expecting them to live in a distant periphery of the city.

Lalit Batra concludes that while the British started the process ‘the elite effortlessly slipped into the shoes of the colonists”  with a hegemonic block of politics, corporation, media, judiciary and affluent citizens.

As a firengi looking on

A haveli courtyard in Old Delhi (c) by Varun Shiv Kapur [http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/3968814237/]

A haveli courtyard in Old Delhi
(c) by Varun Shiv Kapur

While as a firengi looking on, frightened by the challenge of social dislocation, the historian in me looks back at the beauty that is forever lost. As the water table declines soil structure may change, could that risk building stability?

City design is not like designing with lego blocks. No monolithic god like designer can build the perfect master plan. Cties should invite people to sit and play, to grow and thrive as a community.

Communities make cities.

As historian William Dalrymple  lamented the destruction of Delhi’s  historic haveli’s he was given this reminder.

“You must understand,” he said, “that we Hindus burn our dead.” Either way, the loss of Delhi’s past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early 21st century with a deep sadness. 

Yet the rituals of cremation in part is a symbolic remembrance of the cycle of life and rebirth and a respect for nature. Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist traditions ask us to hold onto the bones of our humanity. Their ritual remember the cycles of nature. Insead corporation distances us from both nature and our compassion.

Cities will outlast our sojourn on this earth so can we ensure they reunite us to the beauty of life and community? Is Delhi losing its natural beauty?