Shahjahanabad has been celebrated, grieved over, referred to as ‘Old Delhi’, labelled a slum and now designated a ‘conservation area’. There is a perception—voiced at seminars and backed by apposite Urdu verses—that it was a beautiful city, and is no longer one. There is a suggestion that it must be ‘restored’ to its past glory, that it must be ‘revitalised’ (hearing which, an Australian conservationist said weakly that ‘devitalisation’ was surely what was needed). Re-store, re-vitalise, re-generate, re-build. For whom?
Shahjahanabad has died many deaths. From the time the palace complex was built in the 17th century and the mohallas began to grow around it, the city has been very conscious of its political status, its monuments, its poets, its civilised quality. It had to suffer at the hands of Nadir Shah, the Marathas, the British. But the city always pulled itself together again and life went on.
However, 1947 was different—in three important ways. Thousands of happy and contented Dilliwalas left the city in panic, and thousands of exhausted and bewildered immigrants poured in and occupied the vacant houses. By this time, Shahjahanabad had already become a poor relative of the gleaming capital city of New Delhi. Within a few years, the planners, dreaming of a Greater Delhi, stamped the damning term SLUM across Shahjahanabad on their maps.
Different sections of Greater Delhi tend to be self-contained and Shahjahanabad is no exception. But, increasingly, this area is becoming one to be viewed, its food sampled, its ambience understood. Before 1947, there were schemes to decongest south Shahjahanabad for the benefit of its inhabitants. Today, there are discussions on ‘beautification’, to make the area pleasing for the visitor.
We have seen how gentrification has worked in European countries—it pushes up land prices, brings the old rich back into the inner city, and respectful tourists walk around and wonder. In Delhi, we have the alarming example of the boutique-ification of a peaceful village near some exquisite monuments in Hauz Khas. There was a terrible incident in 1976 when people living in the area around Turkman Gate had to watch their homes being bulldozed and were themselves pushed like cattle into trucks and sent off to a wilderness later labelled a ‘resettlement colony’.
We have to remember that a large number of people, many very poor, still live and work in Shahjahanabad, though it is going increasingly commercial. Of course, they will also enjoy a cleaner, prettier landscape as much as the visitors will, but great care is needed to ensure that the old and poor still feel comfortable in their city, that rickshaws are not edged out, that informal shops are not brutally shifted, that local schoolchildren begin to see themselves as citizens of a historic city which has great architecture and a beautiful language.
‘Conservation’ in a living city, where thousands of people are gamely struggling to make ends meet, has to think of the community as much as of the tourist. My fear is that the ignorance with which people allowed Hauz Khas village to be replaced by ‘Hauz Khas Village’, the cowardly fear that kept them silent in 1976, may be followed by an indifference that will allow Shahjahanabad to become an alien landscape for its own people.
This piece appeared in the October issue of Delhi City Limits.