New Delhi: A heritage zone at 80!

In 1988 Lutyen’s Delhi, was declared a heritage zone by prohibiting building activity within the 26 square kilometre area out of the 43 Sq. Km. area that falls within the civic control of New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC). A move has now been initiated to get the entire area declared a World Heritage site.

The very logic of an area being declared a Heritage Zone should preclude any interference with the layout and design of the entire zone. Non-interference also means that, future building and development activity, if at all permitted, has to conform to the original parameters of design, materials, fittings and fixtures used, building techniques, landscaping and the kinds of trees planted in the heritage zone.

Even before the 1988 freeze on construction, there was a master plan for Delhi and it clearly identified the Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone as an area where high rises were not to be permitted.

The actual violations began when this rule was selectively relaxed beginning with permission given in the mid 70s to construct the high rise Sagar Apartments on Tilak Marg. High rises like Asha Deep and Dakshineshwar on Hailey Road followed shortly thereafter.

From then to now Bungalows on parts of Kasturba Gandhi Marg and Barakhambha Road and selective plots on Parliament Street, Firozeshah Road, Bhagwan Das Road, Copernicus Marg, Janpath and  Mansigh Road etc have been pulled down and replaced with high rise buildings, residential properties, commercial cum office complexes, government offices and builder apartments.

The violations were first permitted to favour cronies of the extra-constitutional centres of powers that had emerged during the days of the internal emergency of 1975-76, a precedent was set and now bureaucrats, journalists, land-sharks, property dealers, movers and shakers of Delhi and everyone else who could pull a few strings, got into the act.

Building came up despite the Archaeological Survey of India refusing to approve locations that were in violation of the ASI rule of not permitting any construction within 50 metres of a protected monument. The biggest culprit of this violation was the DLF building, next to Jantar Mantar. Once this was allowed another precedent was set.

Heritage Conservation has now become a dead letter as far as the builder lobby is concerned. For them all old buildings are nothing more than structures that sit on high value real estate and need to be pulled down and replaced with ugly glass and concrete structures.

The New Delhi Heritage Zone has been subject to renewal, repair and restoration activities almost continuously, throughout the post independence period, even after the freeze on construction in 1988 and even after the proposal in 2009 to try to get the world heritage site recognition this endless construction has not stopped.

Hotel Fonseca on 1 Mansingh Road was replaced with Taj Mansingh, Hotel, Claridges lost its colonial look after large scale refurbishing and rebuilding was carried out.

The ITDC owned high rise Ashok Yatri Niwas and the Kanishk were built in the Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone to accommodate tourists at the time of the 9th Asian Games organised in 1982. The hotels were subsequently sold to private hotel Chains. An event of national importance becomes the excuse for fiddling with the existing laws and once the law is altered the property can be handed over for private profiteering.

The bungalow on 14 Ashok Road, for long the residence of a Minister saw large scale alterations and changes, changes the like of which have been witnessed at a large number of bungalows where ministers, senior bureaucrats, army, navy and air force top brass live or where political parties have set up their offices.

The original names of all roads have been changed; the original sign posts are also gone, replaced with ugly stainless steel frames that are neither aesthetically pleasing nor sturdy.

The traffic roundabouts that were a unique feature of Lutyen’s Delhi are all but gone. The original shrubs and trees, including the large number of fruit bearing trees, that attracted a large number of Birds, have been replaced with a range of fast growing trees that do not provide food for birds and so the avian population, hard hit with growing pollution, drying up water bodies now also suffers from an absence of food.

The recent scars on the face of Lutyen’s Delhi have come in the garb of “urban renewal” initiated in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG). Almost all the pavements radiating from C-Hexagon – the India Gate roundabout, were re-laid, the original pavements made with packed earth and trimmed with white washed Delhi Quartz were replaced with Red Sand Stone.

The iconic white pillars with their iron link chains that lined Rajpath and the India Gate C-Hexagon roundabout have now become red stone pillars. The pillars are now being painted white. Why make them with stone if you are going to paint them white? The Lutyen era black lamp posts are gone, replaced with Silver coloured lamp posts and even these do not have any uniformity of design in the entire heritage zone.

Within the 26 square kilometres of what is now New Delhi are a number of monuments that pre-date the construction of this 8th capital city of Delhi, The Madrasa of Safdarjung, The so called Agrasen ki Baoli – the magnificent step-well built during the Sultanate period, The Mausoleums and other structures built in Khairpur, now known as Lodi Gardens and the many other structures that border the limits of Lutyen’s Delhi like the many Monuments in Nizam-ud-Din, The world heritage site of Humayun’s tomb and other mausoleums, the Old Fort and the nearby ruins, the ruins inside the Golf Club etc, these are structures that have a much greater historical, architectural and cultural value than the bungalows of Lutyen’s Delhi. But these structures do not occupy the mind space of those who live and rule from the bungalows and buildings built from the first decade of the last century.

The oldest among these will not even be 100 years in 2012 while the foundation stones of the youngest structures in this pretender to “world heritage status” are being laid even as we meet here to discuss the centenary of the founding of the colonial capital.

The heritage zone of Lutyen’s Delhi is sought to be preserved for posterity, while the large number of medieval monuments scattered over the almost 1400 square kilometres are left to be pillaged and encroached upon.

A little over 50% of the 43 square kilometres administered by NDMC are sought to be preserved, while an entire heritage city, Shahjahanabad, a living heritage city, is allowed to choke and die even as builders slowly buy up adjacent properties, pull down 300 year old structures and build ugly glass and steel structures in their place.

The 4-5 acre bungalows, each with a handful of residents, are sought to be preserved while the natural heritage of the Arravalis, among the oldest exposed rocks in the world and with their own unique biodiversity, is blasted off, dug up and built over. Malls frequented by the new rich come up on land that not too long ago was home to a wide variety of Birds, Insects, Antelopes, Hare, Mongoose, Squirrels, Jackals and Rhesus Monkeys.

Bungalows and offices built not even 70 years ago and modified, redesigned, refitted and refurnished, as recently as the arrival of the latest allottee, are sought to be preserved while the Jamna that has  seen empires rise and fall and has sustained the large agricultural population of the plains surrounding Delhi for thousands of years is choked to death and its tributaries first tuned into open drains and then covered up to become Dilli Haats, Parking lots and flower markets, destroying the natural aquifers that replenished the sub soil water. All this destroyed by policies and actions, conceived and put in place, by those who do not want to leave their “Heritage Bungalows in Luteyn’s Delhi”.

Just as New Delhi alone cannot continue to develop if rest of India starves, the heritage of 26 Square Kilometres of Lutyen’s Delhi also cannot be preserved if the 800 Square Kilometres of seven earlier cities, the Jamuna and the Arravalis is not preserved.

7 thoughts on “New Delhi: A heritage zone at 80!”

  1. Everything changes with time. To cling to something after its time is over is foolishess. Heritage is fine so long as one can afford to maintain it. Ruins would not exist if the concerned generations had clung to those eras,


    1. What about the things that didn’t change with time. What about the heritage that could have been maintained. ‘Concerned generations’ are long gone and at present we are the ‘Concerned generation’.

      So should future also ignore the facts and culture and blame it on us. No I think they are smart and will laugh at our foolishness and say we could have done better. Now since nothing is left not even the ruins who cares.

      Do we need to wait for an IAC/Anna/Arvind to tell us that we are right and powerful in every issue we face in our life. Then i guess we will be needing 100 Crores of such type.


      1. Ruins are those which perhaps did not deserve to be preserved or that the concerned prople could not afford to preserve them. We too should do the same.


  2. Thought provoking article!
    One must realize, however, that development takes place to accommodate growing population and changing lifestyle. It is something that is bound to happen. But I agree that how it happens can definitely be controlled. I am thankful that India Gate lawns and Children’s Park are still there for people to enjoy though of course the crowds have swelled significantly. I shudder to think of this part of Lutyen’s Delhi ever being overrun with tall commercial buildings. This area definitely needs to be preserved!
    In all truth, let us also acknowledge that restoration work has been done on a lot of monuments mentioned in the article and they are being taken care of. The monuments around Nizamuddin are in a much better state now than they were when we went for morning walks in our childhood! Let us be thankful for what we can still enjoy.
    It would also be wise to accept that change is the only constant in life!


  3. Well Lutyens’ Delhi is beautiful and should be preserved just as the old mughal structures. Well about being a world heritage site we have Rani-ki-Vav in Patan Gujarat but that is not a world heritage site yet and may not become one because no one wants to take the trouble. Well there were old graveyards and mosques destroyed in the 2002 pogrom. Even after that in 2006 a dargah was destroyed for road building they said.
    Well there is something about an old culture that does not want or regard history. There are dog graves in Pune University which probably have disappeared. We need to keep various bits of heritage alive as we become or at least pretend to become modern. I wonder if we can do that.


  4. I think, India is a country that has a long history for showing disregard to its past. sometimes I wonder what is India’s true history. That is why NCERT creates fictional history for India, means some are disturbed by the true history of India. So may be that has become a behaviour in us.

    Nations have different kinds of histories, oppressive or otherwise. I am living in a country that had the worst of it-the apartheid. . But I am daily walking through a city that is declared a heritage site that means everything of this apartheid is preserved here as per rules and regulations..

    Those buildings says here once these things had happened. But what about India, as I said above, everything has been covered up there so that the invaders can create new histories to suit with their own will and fancies.

    Only a disciplined people can agree to rules and regulations.


    1. History can be distorted by rulers when they desire to go down in history as great benefactors, great emancipators, ………etc……etc. Our own Indira Gandhi had tried to bury a time capsule giving her version of what she and her father did for India. For some reason, the capsule was later exhumed. History is written not only in stone etchings or documents and so on. History is remembered by every living entity, each with its subjective perspective. When these entities are transformed into some other entities, they carry their memories with them. A tree in Moghul Emperor Akbar’s time might today be an animal or even a human being.The memory of the past is nevertheless embedded in some form of the other. A collective of such entities subconsciously compare notes and the least common denominator of them forms history. In common parlance, this is known as folklore, much derided by purists but nevertheless more acceptable to the majority. This is my view.


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