Periodically, Delhi dies. There have been seven Delhis, so there are as many abandoned remains of past cities strewn between the Jamuna and Qutub. Now another, vaster by far, is adding to the debris as Delhi is ripped apart in an orgy of redevelopment. Usually, the cause of Delhi’s death has been the overweening ambition of a conqueror who spurns the old to build a new city to proclaim his personal glory. But Delhi’s latest demise comes from no such search for immortality. The agent of destruction is no masterful individual but a grey, invisible tribe of officials, unidentified and unidentifiable, hidden from view as they proceed with their covert labours. They are an unremarkable band but yet an army to match Nadir Shah’s in wreaking havoc and destruction. And when we consider that all this is done in the name of Delhi itself, and that its residents are endlessly acquiescent in their own unhappy fate, it looks more like a case of suicide than yet another murder of the city.
The Commonwealth Games are at the root of it and have led to the endless rebuilding that has devastated the city. Contrast Beijing, where the Olympics had the effect of upgrading the outer reaches, or London, where the Olympics will do the same for the lagging East End. These cities had the good sense to build new sporting facilities in the least crowded parts, where the modern structures could help regenerate neglected areas. Delhi has no shortage of areas in sore need of regeneration. But here it was decided to put the new facilities right in the centre, where the city is already at its most concentrated and where there is just no room available. It was a terrible decision that will ensure that Delhi inherits an inextricable urban snarl from its two weeks of Games glory.
Poorly conceived freeways and overpasses are transforming Delhi into a vision of Los Angeles, with a bit of Dhaka thrown in as rickshawland proliferates off the main roads. Nobody quite seems in control. The symbol of authority is still the policeman, a figure from an earlier century with a vintage register in his hand and a familiar glint in his eye. He looks on benignly as every rule of the road is ignored: let vehicles come and go as they wish, let the roads fill and hazards pile up, this is of no concern to our man.
The Metro, Delhi’s pride and joy, is adding to the damage. It has been permitted to surface where it should have remained underground, so that it will add to the noise and crowding and wreck quiet neighbourhoods. Elsewhere in the world, citizens have combined successfully to keep urban railways underground, but not in Delhi. Here, nobody asks questions, and the Metro is a law to itself. The bill for today’s folly will be paid by later generations.
What really sets the seal on this dismemberment of Delhi is the disdain for its heritage that accompanies the current building fury. The faceless army anonymously brewing its plans came perilously close to fatally damaging the renowned Humayun’s Tomb with a hare-brained scheme for a sunken road skirting its foundations. But official complacency has permitted the same group of wreckers to relocate the project a stone’s throw away, where it will bring ruin to Khan Khanan’s Tomb, another great treasure of the Mughal era. Such disregard has been made possible by the systematic dismantling of regulatory systems established for Delhi’s preservation. Not long ago, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission resigned en masse in protest against being harried into conformity by the local administration. The Archaeological Survey of India, the principal guardian of the country’s built heritage, has been hammered into subservience. Even the Red Fort, the most emblematic of Delhi’s monuments, has been adorned with the most vulgar and inappropriate embellishments, and Humayun’s Tomb, too, has not escaped unscathed. Thus Delhi lies naked before the faceless army bent on imposing its petty vision on this historic city. And all the massive building activity will not produce a single structure to add glory to the city.
A century ago, the wonderful writer Ahmed Ali bade farewell to an earlier Delhi with his classic Twilight in Delhi. Now, another elegy to Delhi is needed, so that a memory remains even when the substance is being irretrievably lost. Something new is of course coming in place of the old, but what we are seeing is a violent transformation, not the carefully measured change that was required. Delhi’s character will scarcely survive the transition.
(The author is a former foreign secretary.)
Salman Haidar (Delhicide Once More, May 17) is right. I grew up in Delhi in the ’70s-80s and despite the shortages of many things, Delhi retained a regal charm, unhurried and full of history and character. Development is good; so is progress. But not at the cost of destroying the fabric of a community. The Commonwealth Games could have been a great opportunity to revitalise the city; instead, the work going on is nothing but so-called beautification—in overdrive. At least Beijing built world-class architecture. What New Delhi will have is a mere shadow of that. Vikram Tiku, Vancouver
Despite Mr Haidar’s concerns, Delhi still seems First World compared to Mumbai. Ashok Lal, Mumbai
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT