Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Much Ado about an Anniversary - A Hundred Years of New Delhi

I have been thinking about this widespread interest in the 100th anniversary of the establishment of New Delhi.
And I have been wondering why this occasion should generate such an interest. After all Delhi itself has a much older urban built tradition. Even if we disregard the archaeological fragments which point to a built history of more than a 1000 years, there are substantial remains of historic cities in this region, including Shah Jahan’s 17th century city of Shahjahanabad—the ‘new’ Delhi at the turn of the 20th century. Why are we then getting so excited about a mere 100 years? What does New Delhi mean to us that we celebrate the 100 years since a British monarch and his Queen laid down a foundation stone in what is now the North Campus of the Delhi University area, with such concentrated attention in our newspapers, our magazines and our media?
One reason perhaps for such an interest maybe the fact that the establishment of a capital at New Delhi, in purely political terms meant that active political power was ‘returning’ to Delhi after being centred in Calcutta after 1857 and its aftermath. So, Delhi, which had shrunk in political terms to a provincial city, was again after a gap of half a century regaining its historical status of a capital city once again. So, perhaps the celebration is not just the 100th anniversary of New Delhi, but a celebration of the reinstatement of Delhi’s political status.
The second reason may be the fact, that at the level of city-planning, New Delhi looms large on our physical and mental consciousness. New Delhi has had a huge impact on the growth and ‘development’ of towns and cities throughout the country. Again, perhaps one reason for this is the political baggage that it carries. And I find this a bit of a paradox. That a city which quite frankly turns its back on indigenous principles of urban planning and architecture and takes western models as its inspiration, should have been accepted so whole-heartedly by the political leaders of a newly independent India. And the fact that the image and form of such a city continues to be promoted by most of us today—administrators and professionals alike. I do not remember the 350th anniversary of the establishment of Shahjahanabad being commemorated on the same scale. And even though its urban form is actually climatically, culturally and socially better adapted to the Delhi region and its recorded crime rate is lower than that in the newer planned parts of the city, Shahjahanabad is not the inspiration for newer cities. Maybe there is an associational value of Shahjahanabad with the last Mughals as a spent force; by the same argument, however, New Delhi should have an unpleasant associational value with the British as the seat of our erstwhile colonial masters.
There is no doubt, of course, that at many levels, New Delhi is very pleasant. I have stayed in many parts of it, including the large bungalow allotted to my father when he was the Vice Chief of the Indian Army Staff. To live in the midst of trees, with the luxury of large gardens and verandahs, is no doubt very attractive. But there are two issues here. The pleasance of New Delhi comes at a huge cost. It is the rest of the city which pays the price so that New Delhi can afford to be green and luxurious. Historically, cities have always been dense. Of course, they have had public parks and limited private gardens—as was the case even in Shahjahanabad, the ‘new Delhi’ that preceded the British Imperial capital. The British and Modern New Delhi, on the other hand, is actually the reverse of a city. It is sub-urban—the garden-city idea of Ebenezer Howard imposed many thousands of miles away.
It aims to combine the advantages of country-life (trees, fresh air, houses far way and virtually invisible from each other) with that of city-life (opportunities for intense interaction, mingling of minds, concentrated and varied activity). Evidently, reconciling both is not easy—and is generally unsuccessful. So, New Delhi in physical terms is unsustainable. The sort of densities here are one dwelling unit per acre as compared to 35 dwelling units per acre in DDA flats or over 60 dwelling units per acre in ‘unauthorised colonies’ and developer flats.
So, what it means is that to keep New Delhi looking spacious and green and uncrowded, the rest of the city is squeezed and crowded in; and they have to forego the amenities of both city and country. A plan such as New Delhi’s is also unsustainable because if you push dwelling units so far apart and if you isolate residential and commercial activities, you are immediately dependant on vehicular transport of some kind to negotiate distances. So, you cannot really do without cars within New Delhi. And since the centre of the capital city of India is so spread out and is retained as a low-density area, it is the periphery of the city which is made to accommodate the increasing numbers of people who come to live and seek work here. Travelling from the periphery to the centre of the city – where administrative and many business interests are centred – means that you are again dependant on either the inadequate and crowded public transport, or if you can afford it, in private vehicular transport. And so, like the circular layout of New Delhi, life within it too becomes a vicious circle.
Safety—personal and community—also comes a cropper in a layout like New Delhi’s. Since the dwelling units are bungalows pushed back from the street, screened by trees, bereft of landmarks apart from the tombs, temples and structures of older historic Delhis (which are also being razed down or taken over)—it is easy to get lost, waylaid, mugged or murdered in Delhi. Other parts of Delhi cannot afford to replicate the planned form of New Delhi with ‘bungalows in gardens’, but they follow it in different ways. Plotted houses setback from the road and screened by high walls in colonies; housing societies and developer flats with their version of ‘vertical bungalows’ behind boundary walls. In that sense, New Delhi and the development that it has spawned is very much a colonial city—distanced, isolated, aloof, heavily dependent on natural or native resources.