Incidents of roofs cave-ins are not rare in Delhi. Every other week, a building collapse is reported from unauthorised colonies that house one-third of Delhi’s residents. But it shocked many people, when two roofs gave in at Connaught Place, Delhi’s toniest commercial address, this month.
Unlike the illegal buildings in unauthorised colonies that are built in a hurry and in violation of all construction norms, CP is one the best pieces of architecture Delhi owns. Built by the British as the imperial capital’s high street in early 1930s, it fell into disrepair in the 1990s. But the Rs 670-crore restoration project, the only large-scale urban renewal initiative undertaken in Delhi, was meant to have fixed the commercial district.
It turns out that it didn’t.
The expensive project that continued for five long years since 2009 was only about facade restoration. Pillars and windows were repaired and refurbished but the New Delhi Municipal Council left the roofs to be fixed by the building owners.
On February 2, a portion of C Block, the first building restored by the civic agency to serve as the prototype for the reconstruction project, came crumbling down. Ten days later on a busy Saturday night, the open-air rooftop wing of a restaurant collapsed. Fortunately, no injuries were reported in the two cases.
Like all government agencies caught on the back foot once a shocking oversight comes to light, the NDMC is in reactive mode, shutting down rooftops of all restaurants for good measure. It has also ordered a structural safety survey of CP after the damage was done.
Delhi’s traditional markets have undergone a massive transformation in the last decade. Once a laid back shopping arcade, CP is now full of restaurants and pubs operating from what were once warehouses and office spaces. The first-floor residential flats of Khan Market now house Delhi’s most happening eateries.
But high-decibel establishments with their excessive paraphernalia, such as giant water tanks and generator sets, are overloading the aged structures. Many vacant properties have decayed with neglect and have been under the authority’s radar. Even the next-door neighbours have not bothered about their fragile state as they went about modifying their own buildings.
Anticipating the challenges of the changing times is not our forte. If it were not for a petition in the National Green Tribunal, the civic violations by a number of restaurants in Hauz Khas Village would have never been established. In 2013, as many as three dozen restaurants were found illegally extracting groundwater for commercial use and throwing oil and kitchen waste directly into the drains of Hauz Khas, one of Delhi’s most gentrified urban villages.
Exempt from municipal bylaws, the maze of narrow alleys framed by poorly-provisioned multi-storey constructions here still remains a civic threat. Last August, firefighters had to dash on foot to reach a house on fire, carrying the bulky water hoses attached to extra pipes because their truck could not enter the narrow alleys of the village.
The responsibility of meeting safety standards remains with property owners. But the authorities have to ensure that the undertakings provided for obtaining business licenses are actually carried out. Describing Khan Market restaurants as “a disaster waiting to happen”, the Delhi high court in October last year blamed “the public-private partnership of municipal and police authorities, flat and restaurant owners” for the mess.
The world over, adaptive reuse of space — repurposing old buildings for purposes other than which it was built or designed for — is a preferred strategy for urban renewal. Taking cue from New York’s SoHo, many American cities have transformed their abandoned factory and warehouse neighbourhoods into retail spaces such as galleries, restaurants and bookstores. But all these were allowed only after adequate retrofitting.
Delhi must also follow a right mix of regulation and redevelopment of our urban spaces. In heritage properties such as Connaught Place and Khan Market, focus should shift from facade beautification to ensuring structural safety. And if Delhi truly values its living history, it must bring Hauz Khas and other urban villages on the civic map.
Chic does not have to be unsafe to be edgy.