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Saturday, 7 April 2012

Conservation can be used to tackle problems of urban planning

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by  A G Krishna Menon

Conservation can be used to tackle problems of urban planning

As a society, we proudly proclaim our ancient heritage but unfortunately, when confronted with the imperatives of conserving it, we prevaricate for one reason or another. For example, INTACH is assisting the government of Delhi in preparing an application to UNESCO to nominate Delhi as a World Heritage City, a largely celebratory exercise, but the project is encountering surprising opposition. Typically, critics warn, ‘Don’t look to UNESCO for salvation’ (Indian Express, March 19, 2012). The naysayers point to the slum-like conditions prevalent in many parts of the city, including some of the nominated areas, and the loss of the gracious urbanity they remember from their childhood. While it is incontrovertible that we should get our civic act together, it does not negate the need to conserve, and even celebrate, the city’s heritage. As far as the loss of childhood memories is concerned, that is inevitable, and cannot hold to ransom the UNESCO application process.

Prima facie, the case for nominating Delhi as a World Heritage City is obvious. Not all of metropolitan Delhi has heritage of value, but the area between the Ridge and the River Yamuna, which has been settled in since the stone age, has it in abundance. This area has been the site for what historians refer to as the seven cities of Delhi, with colonial New Delhi constituting the eighth. The remains of this fecund past number over 1200 modest and monumental buildings, including three World Heritage Sites: the Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb and the Red Fort. This extraordinary cornucopia, comparable to any ancient city in the world, is legally protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the state department of archaeology and local municipalities. In addition, the Delhi master plan has identified six heritage precincts and three archaeological parks for special protection because they contain substantial archaeological remains.

Only four of the six heritage precincts identified in the master plan are being nominated: Mehrauli, Nizamuddin, Shahjahanabad and colonial New Delhi. Together and individually, they possess the “outstanding universal value” necessary for the UNESCO tag. It is a complex criterion to address, and our case hinges on convincing the UNESCO interlocutors of the universal significance of the diverse range of syncretic heritage they represent: the unique brand of Indo-Islamic architecture and town planning in Mehrauli and Shahjahanabad; the manifestations of 800 years of Sufism in Nizamuddin; and as far as colonial New Delhi is concerned, it is widely acknowledged as the finest example of urban design — combining principles of the garden city movement and the city beautiful movement—wholly conceived and built, anywhere in the world. Each precinct is unique and together they contribute to the extraordinary aura of Delhi as the historic capital of India. These precincts need to be conserved purposefully to retain their authenticity and integrity, and the UNESCO tag will contribute to achieving those ends.

The nomination project not only expects to celebrate Delhi’s heritage, but also use it as a tool for creating a more legible and enjoyable city. For example, scores of lesser known monuments have already been conserved and inducted into the public domain; about 20 heritage walks have been developed to enable citizens to understand the diversity of their cultural patrimony; the Delhi Transport and Tourism Development Corporation has initiated the hop-on-hop-off bus service to provide convenient access to heritage sites and is planning to include heritage havelis in their bed and breakfast scheme; and several tourist hubs like Purana Qila, Ferozeshah Kotla, Hauz Khas, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and the bylanes of Shahjahanabad are slated for renewal. Considering the scale of the city, it is perhaps a modest beginning, but the process of transformation has been initiated. Seeking UNESCO nomination is therefore not a gratuitous or hubristic venture, as the critics imply.

Perhaps the temerity to expect that even a part of this metropolitan behemoth in a state of seemingly ungovernable anarchy can be transformed by conserving its heritage invites the derision of critics. This is because the imperatives of conservation and city planning have been separated for so long that it has become axiomatic both in the ways we imagine cities and manage them. For example, there are over 220 World Heritage Cities, but not one is Indian. What about Varanasi, Ujjain, Madurai, or for that matter, Ahmedabad and Delhi? Don’t they all possess “outstanding universal value”? In the past, we did not regard our historic towns as heritage, and therefore did not seek the UNESCO tag. I would argue that this elision also resulted in the uninspired quality of our town planning. Conserving heritage is certainly no panacea for the problems of our cities, but it can be used as a tool to mitigate many of their shortcomings. The Delhi Heritage City project is an attempt to demonstrate that proposition.

The writer is the convenor of INTACH’s Delhi chapter
source: Indian Express

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