Millennium Post

Tale of seven cities

Delhi, a megacity of 16.75 million is a symbol of India’s growth story. It is the nerve centre of heritage and modernity, conflicts and contradictions, and richness and poverty. The footprints of its growth are apparent in its heritage, morphology and ecology. The fabric of historic cities of Delhi is embellished with the glory and annals of various cultures and empires. These cities present the pictures of contrasts and contradictions, of triumph and tragedy and chaos and order. All these add up in making Delhi a unique and throbbing city. Through its history, the great builders of yore fell in love with Delhi. Shahjahanabad, built by great emperor Shahjahan, is the climax of classical city building. History records Shahjahanabad as one of the most beautiful cities in the Orient.

The New Delhi, founded in 1911, was planned as a showpiece of the glory and magnificence of the British. It was built as the new capital for India and its architect Edwin Lutyens’ called it the Rome of Hindoostan. The Imperial Delhi is the only surviving garden city in India, with its large gardens, bungalows, central vista and the capital complex. The World Monument Fund has designated Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (Imperial Delhi) covering 2612 ha as one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites.  New Delhi has been acknowledged as the ‘most beautifully designed urban form in India’. With the coming up of Imperial Delhi, the new capital of India, Shahjahanabad became ‘old’ and was relegated as a slum and a potential area of danger, insanitation and crimes. Once a glorious and beautiful city, Shahjahanabad was devalued as a dilapidated, congested, dark, dirty and overcrowded city. This perception started with the hostilities of the war of 1857 and became pronounced with the comparisons between the grand Imperial Delhi and the indigenous Old City.

To improve the Old City the government in 1937 constituted the Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT). The DIT took up various slum clearance and improvement schemes in and around Shahjahanabad, together with industrial and commercial schemes.  The DIT Schemes covered about 4,000 Ha of area, as compared to 600 Ha of area of Shahjahanabad and 3,300 Ha of New Delhi.

After the Independence of the country, the government resolved to make a new beginning, build a new India and a new Capital. It replaced the DIT by Delhi Development Authority. A Master Plan was evolved based on the policies of urban renewal, land use zoning, decongestion and slum clearance.  However, in the rush of population growth and massive development, its historic resources and the treasures of its traditional urbanism were trampled upon.  Borrowed concepts of urban ‘aesthetic’ overlooked its historic, cultural and symbiotic contents of the traditional urbanism.  The consequence is evident in overall decay of the city and its cultural heterogeneity.

 Delhi’s unique repository of natural heritage and traditional urbanism comprises its historic cities, villages, heritage structures, artifacts, streets, parks, river Yamuna and water bodies and cultural and religious precincts. Historically Delhi has grown between River Yamuna and the Ridge, the last traces of the Aravali ranges. The built heritage of Delhi has a uterine relationship with the natural heritage. Delhi Ridge covering 7,777 Ha of area is characterised by tropical thorny secondary forests, open scrubs and trees. The topography of the ridge is undulating with natural drainage network, tanks and pits which act as groundwater recharge points. Delhi Older Alluvial Plain forms a triangle between the River Yamuna in the East, the ridge in the west and Badarpur-Mehrauli Range of the Aravali as the base. It is this triangle that has been the cradle of so many ruling dynasties in the Indian sub-continent. Conservation of Delhi’s heritage, bio-diversity and natural features is of utmost importance for its eco-system.

River Yamuna is the lifeline of Delhi. It is a source of water supply for Delhi and acts as a drainage and flood channel. It is also a major lung space between urban mass on two sides. However, indiscriminate urban growth and damning the river for water supply have disrupted environmental balance. River Yamuna is polluted by continuous discharge of effluents, waste water, sewage and sullage from surrounding urbanisation and storm water drains. Besides augmenting the water supply, it is necessary to control the pollution and dumping of sewage and waste water in the River. It is necessary to build a public interest by linking the population with the river and the beautification of river front. For the creation of a sustainable river regime an eco-sensitive approach is to be adopted by mapping its hydrology, respecting the terrain, the river front, water courses, channels and lakes. Delhi had a wide variety of fine arts, reflected and manifested in its culture, cuisine, etiquettes, festivals, education, dance, drama, stories, architecture, etc. These evolved with place and time, interactions and education, explorations and adventures. Delhi is losing its syncretic culture, known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which found expression in everything from food and dress to poetry and architecture.

Heritage-based planning can strike a balance between development, conservation and environment. It aims to reduce the impact of concretization, air pollution and groundwater depletion, and conserve built heritage and the bio-diversity. Heritage conservation has to relate with the people, their culture, education, employment, mobility and infrastructure services. The heritage is an irreplaceable and non-renewable cultural resource which has educational, recreational and tourism potential. Delhi’s future lies in the conservation of its unique heritage.

Extracts from Dillinama: The Cities of Delhi, Synergy Books India
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