Most areas in the country’s metros today are creaking under urban pressures. Fires, stampedes, buildings collapsing are just some of the hazardous offshoots of this chaotic urban sprawl. It’s perhaps time for responsible and pragmatic restoration of these areas so that they are in tune with contemporary times.
As one exits the Jama Masjid Metro station in Old Delhi, one is greeted by a chaotic and cramped lane leading to the mosque’s Shahi Gate, or Gate No. 2. Spread opposite this gate is the walled city’s famous Meena Bazaar, lined with hawkers selling their wares. Divided in two parts, the four-decade-old Meena Bazaar is famous for its electrical goods and clothing. The bazaar area, however, is in a shambles, with dangling overhead wires and overloading due to a paucity of space. “Our family’s livelihood is dependent on this bazaar, but look at the condition it’s in,” says Shameem Ahmed Khan, general secretary, Meena Bazaar Shopkeepers’ Association. “A small fire and the entire market will be gutted. We don’t even have space for fire tenders to come through.” Khan is right. Even 10 years after the Delhi High Court asked the Delhi government to redevelop the walled city, Meena Bazaar—one of the key areas of the plan—still awaits a makeover. Many lanes leading to the bazaar have also been closed due to the construction of the Delhi Metro. “Because of the closing of roads, no tourist or customer can come inside. Our businesses are suffering,” says a Meena Bazaar shopkeeper who didn’t want to be identified. While this is an instance of much-needed restoration, there is also a need for responsible restoration. The Kamala Mills tragedy in December that claimed 14 lives is an unfortunate reminder. Converted from an old industrial establishment, eyewitnesses claim that it was a disaster waiting to happen. With just one entry and exit point, people were trapped inside when the fire broke out and were asphyxiated to death.
Managing urban pressure takes some expertise. India could take a leaf from the West’s book in this regard. Chicago-based Rebuild Foundation, which is run by Theaster Gates, a champion of urban restoration and an architect by profession, has some inspirational work to show us. Gates, an ardent crusader for the development of the working class, combines urban planning and art practices to transform ruins into interactive public places. “I’ve always believed that the buildings I restore already have stories that people don’t know about. In some ways, my work amplifies these stories,” Gates told FE when he was in Delhi in November last year. He is driven by the philosophy of granting access to the memories these places hold to the masses. The Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago is perhaps one of his finest works. Gates saved the dilapidated bank from demolition and converted it into a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community centre.
In Singapore, structures of national importance were remodelled to align them with the society they were progressing into. Lai Chee Kien, assistant professor, National University of Singapore, lauds the work done by the country with respect to its national monuments, saying, “Singapore has done some significant work to preserve and reshape its monuments with the changing times. They have kept in mind the need to move into a contemporary era with time.” As urban spaces continue to shrink, it’s time that we, too, adopt a pragmatic approach to redevelop or restore areas of historical significance to make them more accessible to people.
Doing it right
Redevelopment or restoration of urban spaces or monuments is a multifarious concept because of the diverse perspectives of the stakeholders involved. As per Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, conservation architect, author and visiting faculty, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, there can never be one standard way of undertaking restoration. “There is no golden rule for redevelopment, but it needs to be in consonance with the place. It has to be considered with respect to the site or monument.” Moreover, it should be a case-by-case approach, she says.
The Red Fort in New Delhi testifies to Mukherji’s views. When first built, it was well integrated with the entire city. Commoners could walk right up to the main gate, as there were no architectural restrictions. But the vast passageways in front of the fort that we see today are a result of British intervention after 1857 when they cleared about 300 yards of land around the fort. “They (the Britishers) had been wanting to do it for some time and finally cited security concerns as a reason behind the clearance,” says Mukherji, the author of The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, which talks about the spatial and architectural history of the Red Fort. “I have seen that on the files they actually say, ‘If we cite security concerns, no one can raise objections’. They broke down huge sections of Shahjahanabad.” Such miscalculated redevelopment, which didn’t keep in mind the essence of the place and people around it, failed to integrate the fort culturally, physically and ecologically.
While the British didn’t pay much attention to the intricacies of the redevelopment project, it does raise the question of what facets are to be kept in mind while undertaking such projects. “It’s people’s culture that’s involved, so the people, organisations and institutions concerned should be brought on the same page before moving ahead,” says Mukherji.
Secondly, the approach should encourage “going outwards” to make the area more accessible to the people living around it. How they perceive the monument, what are their concerns and how they can be tackled are some questions that need to be answered first and foremost. And this is what the people behind the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative in New Delhi are keeping in mind. The ongoing project, which started in 2007 and aims to restore the three historical sites of Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin Basti and Sunder Nursery in south Delhi, is led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Public Works Department and the Archaeological Survey of India. “We had no preconceived notions in our head when we started the project. We went with an open mind and allowed the people to come to us with their problems. Based on those issues, we took it forward,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Today, Nizamuddin Basti, located adjacent to Humayun’s Tomb, is a success story. Once a densely-populated locality, which lacked sewage pipes, it today has a clinic, proper sewer lines, schools run by locals, public toilets and even a gym. “The women of the locality asked us for a gym, so we decided to build one for them. We had never thought of it in the first place,” says Nanda, adding, “When we first came here, the women didn’t work professionally. As our volunteers reached out to them, they began to understand the importance of earning. Today, they are teaching, some stitch, some do embroidery, etc.”
The initial years were tough though, says Nanda. “It was difficult in the first three-four years. People didn’t believe us or our work. They felt we would occupy their place and remove them from their homes. Gradually, as they saw our work, their perceptions changed. One needs to be persistent,” he says. The restoration of Humayun’s Tomb, too, which was completed in 2013, deserves a mention. The site, which, till a decade ago, had a leaking dome, missing tiles, collapsing walls and damaged stone façades, is a site to behold today. The restoration work started in 2007 and it took six years for the monument to regain its older glory. “The process took time, as the monument was in a bad shape. We had to find different alternatives at various stages to fix it,” says Nanda.
Another success story has been the transformation of Jaipur’s Bishangarh Fort into a luxury hotel. Once a dying fortress, the 230-year old structure today can compete with the country’s best five-star hotels. Its restoration, which took almost a decade, was undertaken by Singapore-headquartered hotel management company Alila Hotels and Resorts in 2007, which, in turn, entrusted the task to Ritu Khandelwal and Sandeep Khandelwal of Jaipur-based Sthapatya Architects, an architectural consulting firm. “We wanted to keep the essence of the fort. The original architecture is marvellous,” says Ritu Khandelwal. “The more we ventured into it, the more layers were unravelled. It became a puzzle for us to solve. We had to make sure that we did not disturb the originality of the fort and yet give it a fresh and modern look.”
Finding the balance
In 2017, Ahmedabad was named as the country’s first ‘World Heritage City’ by the Unesco. The city, however, has a mammoth task of living up to the tag: traffic chokes the centuries-old stone archway into Ahmedabad’s historic quarters and a greasy layer of soot blankets its monuments. Experts believe severe air pollution, crushing traffic and the chaotic urban sprawl are rapidly eroding the city. “The walled part of the city was not meant for buses and trucks. Today, you just see vehicles all around. We are making efforts to curb pollution and reduce traffic, but it will take some time before we can achieve complete success,” says PK Ghosh, chairman, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s heritage conservation committee.
The committee has three years to document close to 3,000 buildings of heritage value to strict Unesco standards, a Herculean task for Ghosh’s team. “It’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. We expect the status granted to the city will make its citizens more aware of the challenges at hand,” he says. Old Delhi’s walled city, on the other hand, still languishes in despair. In 2006, after the Delhi HC’s decision to appoint Pradeep Sachdeva, a New Delhi-based architect, to lay out the plan for the redevelopment of Shahjahanabad, things took a dramatic turn. Vijay Singh, the then nodal officer of the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation, came up with an alternate design, which led to a conflict of opinion with Sachdeva.
Meena Bazaar is the major bone of contention between the two. While Sachdeva’s plan talks of relocating the market to one side of the mosque, clearing up the view from the Red Fort, Singh has proposed to keep the market as it is, but convert it into a concrete structure with more shops, art galleries, etc. “We did detailed surveying of the place, talked to shopkeepers and then came up with a plan. After the High Court’s order, we got it passed from all the required authorities, but till date, there has been no progress,” says Sachdeva.
In case his plan is approved and the relocation takes place, the shopkeepers at Meena Bazaar are clear about their demands. “We are ready to relocate, but first, shops have to be allotted to us in the new market. Only then we will vacate,” says a shopkeeper who didn’t want to be named. As the case stands, both the designs have been sent to the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi, to be reviewed—SPA is one of the architectural colleges that works with various governments on urban planning projects.
Not just the walled city, there are other areas in the capital, too, which are creaking under urban pressures. Take, for instance, Lajpat Nagar. Makeshift shanties are a common sight here. These are occupied by migrants from all over the country who work as rickshaw pullers in this shoppers’ paradise. Interestingly, all the shanties have a dish antenna, but not a proper toilet. These ‘ghetto’-like colonies have come up on land, which either belongs to the government or public-sector companies. “It’s a case of ‘anonymous ownership’,” says Mukherji of the School of Planning and Architecture. “These people come from rural areas to find jobs, but the cities are already choc-a-bloc with people, so they have no option but to live like this. It not only ruins cities, but also hampers human development, leading to all sorts of crimes. This is the biggest challenge that comes with urbanisation.”
Agrees New Delhi-based architect Sachdeva: “The government needs to find more area around the city along with employment opportunities to relocate these people to better places. The area in the cities is shrinking day by day, so it’s a difficult task, but we don’t have any alternatives,” he says. In this respect, Delhi could perhaps learn from Mumbai. In August 2017, the Maharashtra government reviewed the five-phased Dharavi redevelopment project (which aims to give a makeover to the slums) worth `25,000 crore. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who claims the project would change the city’s skyline, had said at the time: “Making Mumbai slum-free was part of the comprehensive plan and it supplements the ambitious Centre-state project of affordable housing for all.”
Stressing on the need to adopt technology in the housing sector, he expressed concern over providing adequate temporary transit accommodation to residents when the redevelopment work commences in Asia’s biggest slum colony of Dharavi—the authorities are yet to finalise the final bid for the project though. “Affordable housing, or redevelopment under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority plan, should aim towards meeting the need for better shelters, complete with basic amenities, to each and every resident in Mumbai or other parts of Maharashtra,” he had said.