Every city embodies the socio-economic philosophy of the times. Older cities will often contain the remnants of past intellectual frameworks that marked the evolution of the city. This is certainly true of the many Delhis that dwell within the National Capital Region. With the debates currently raging about the city’s Central Vista Project (CVP) and the newly unveiled Draft Master Plan 2041, therefore, it is important to engage with the underlying philosophy of the proposed changes rather than supporting or opposing proposals based on current political preferences.
In late 17th century, Shajehanabad (ie today’s Old Delhi) was a city of palaces but also of squalid slums. This reflected a feudal hierarchy culminating in the grand palace inside Red Fort. When the British built New Delhi after 1911, they envisaged a different hierarchy – that is of a global colonial empire projecting power through an outsized Viceregal Palace (now Rashtrapati Bhawan) as well as North and South Blocks. The imagery is literally of an all-powerful Empire peering down on the subjects from Raisina Hill.
During the socialist period, Delhi became a city of civil servants. This is reflected in the buildings of RK Puram and other government housing colonies, all graded by bureaucratic hierarchy. The liberalisation of the economy after 1991, then led to the boom-town of Gurgaon with its laissez faire energy but also a whiff of the robber baron developer. A similar history can be written for other Indian cities to explain how they evolved.
What is being attempted now for Delhi is to make it consciously democratic, flexible to changing needs and modernised for the 21st century. One may agree or disagree that the proposed changes will lead to this outcome, but all views need to be expressed in the overall context of these three objectives.
The first objective of the CVP and the draft master plan is to democratise public spaces by systematically opening up heritage and green areas for public enjoyment. The same idea is behind actively supporting nightlife. Democratic cities should leverage all assets to encourage human interaction. Notice how this is a break from the older approach where municipal regulation was about “yahan allowed nahi hai” (ie not allowed here). Inaugurated just two years ago, Sundar Nursery is an example of how opening out underutilised government land can make for a wonderful addition to the city.
The same thinking informs the improvements being done to the lawns along Rajpath – the gardens are being spruced up, toilets being added and so on. Contrary to some media reports, there is no mass cutting of jamun trees. Instead, inbuilt infrastructure is being laid out so that viewing stands for events like Republic Day can be set up very quickly. Today, Rajpath lawns are out of bounds for almost three months due to the annual ritual; that too during the best weather. Since stands and sound systems will now be put up easily, we will also be able to use the space for other events – sports, concerts etc. The draft master plan, similarly, proposes to develop the Yamuna river front as an “interactive” zone that preserves the flood plains while also allowing organised public access for walking, cycling and bird-watching. Again, note how this is a break from the old thinking that any activity along the Yamuna was viewed as an environmental disaster.
The second change in approach relates to adapting buildings and urban zones for evolving needs. Repurposing is done routinely in the rest of the world but a mindset of rigid master-planning makes this unduly difficult in India. Both the CVP and the draft master plan have incorporated active adaptation. North and South Blocks may be impractical for modern offices, but the beautiful buildings can be converted into international quality museums to showcase our ancient civilisation. Raisina Hill should be open for the enjoyment of the general public, and will be a big improvement on the current National Museum.
The same thinking should be applied to cities across India. Many cities have old buildings that should be turned into cultural spaces, for instance Kolkata’s Writers’ Building. Indeed, whole urban zones can be redeployed for new uses – Mumbai’s unused port area, the derelict warehouses of Kolkata’s riverfront, and Kanpur’s old mills.
Finally, Delhi needs offices and other infrastructure that are fit for the 21st century. No one who has had the misfortune of working in the likes of Shastri Bhawan will object to demolishing and rebuilding the “bhawans”. The so-called corridors-of-power are overrun by hanging wires, dripping air-conditioners and the stench of leaking toilets. A few senior officers may have tolerable offices but the vast majority work from dreary partitioned cabins. Many civilian and military departments operate out of tin-sheds behind North Block where they had been moved “temporarily” in the 1950s! Forget foreign investors and diplomats, it is embarrassing to invite someone from Gurgaon to most government offices.
Suggestions and criticism are always welcome, but these must be done in the context of what is being attempted. In this spirit, let me set out my own unsolicited suggestions. First, Rajpath should be permanently pedestrianised except for Republic Day. Traffic will not be affected as pedestrian underpasses, already under construction, will allow the cross roads to keep functioning. Second, the new buildings should incorporate distinctly Indian architecture and detailing, rather than generic modernist design. Urban personality matters just as much as function.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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