Delhi’s central ridge was a keekar forest inhabited by jackals and wild boars where locals hunted partridges till 1929 when the British started building a Georgian-style plaza that would come to be known as Connaught Place. By 1933, the central business district of India’s imperial Capital was in place.
The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which took up the task of redeveloping Connaught Place as part of its ‘Return to the Heritage’ project, has spent almost as much time on the job as the British did on its construction. With heavy machinery and debris weighing on dug-up roads, CP — as Connaught Place is popularly abbreviated — looks war-ravaged and far from restored.
It continues to be one of the key business districts because of its location. It also remains Delhi’s original high street. But business has taken a huge hit, with sales dipping as much as 70% in the Middle Circle. Many customers have shifted to malls.
CP’s restoration, the only large-scale urban renewal project undertaken in Delhi, is a story of missed deadlines and escalating costs. The paperwork began in 2004. By 2009, the majestic circus was dug up in trenches, to be navigated by shoppers through precariously placed metal walkways. The cost climbed up from R76 crore in May 2005 to R477 crore in June 2012, with a huge rise in the scope of work.
We are three months to the latest deadline of December 2012, and CP still looks bombarded. For the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the dug-up roads were hurriedly filled up, corridors dusted and painted for the cycling and the marathon events, only to be excavated again.
But now, even the façades and colonnades restored for the Games look frayed and timeworn, and in some places literally falling apart. Despite modern techniques, NDMC has failed to match the construction quality undertaken by the British nearly eight decades ago.
Numerous explanations have been offered: The project was way more than what NDMC bargained for; the damage was so much that even walls and pillars had to be rebuilt; contractors abandoned projects midway and some didn’t return; labourers went home for crop harvesting; obtaining permission for traffic diversions and road-digging took long.
Throughout, the government kept pushing the deadline. How could the Sheila Dikshit government, that takes so much pride in its housekeeping skills, allow this criminal mismanagement? Why did it have to go into sub-contracting? Why did it not crack the whip?
No city in the world would have allowed its heart to be ripped open and left just like that; certainly not a city that hosted a mega event and proudly claims its legacy. Could we imagine a similar sight in Oxford Circus or Regent Street in London?
But should the CP tragedy surprise us in a city where we put Rs 16,500 crore of taxpayers’ money into the makeover for Games and our “world-class” sheen started wearing off almost as soon as the party was over? Now, much like CP’s restoration, Delhi’s legacy plan has also been orphaned.
Creating, and then protecting, transformative legacy is a challenge for any city that hosts big games. So is the task of looking after physical heritage. Delhi has already failed the Commonwealth Games test which could not be postponed. But having missed three deadlines, it does not have any excuse for pushing its luck with Connaught Place.