Jama Masjid, one of the last significant monuments of the Mughal period, now faces the threat of extinction in the garb of development. If the Delhi government has its way, underground malls will be constructed 15 metres away from the steps of the monument. The proposed plan shows disregard for history and the culture of the people living in the area. It is this cavalier attitude towards the city’s rich past that has prompted all the members of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, headed by architect Charles Correa, to resign en masse. Sadly, this seems to have had no effect on the plans for the Jama Masjid and other historic monuments.
To create the four-layered basement, the ground will have to be dug at least 80 feet. This will cause severe stress to buildings within a radius of 500 metres. In 2005, a High Court ruled in favour of beautifying the area around the Jama Masjid with open green spaces. The Municipal Corpor-ation of Delhi (MCD) had commissioned such a plan that was presented and approved by the court. Instead of this well-integrated plan, we suddenly hear the horror story of a new MCD plan of converting the area into a mall venture.
As a rule, the Archaeo-logical Survey of India (ASI) does not permit any construction within a hundred metres of a protected monument. The Jama Masjid is a functioning mosque and is, therefore, not protected by the ASI. The Waqf Board is the custodian of the mosque as pronounced by the Delhi High Court. However, does that mean we strip the ‘heritage’ status off the mosque and allow real estate builders and the State to threaten its survival?
Recent years have witnessed both state and central governments becoming active partners with the builder lobby in the hunt for prime real estate. In the shroud of development, they remain insensitive to concerns of environment, heritage and the displacement of the poor. The Delhi government has been pushing for the construction of the Commonwealth Games village on the last embankment left of the Yamuna against the recommendations of reputed environmentalists. The proposed plan violates the right of the river to exist and threatens the city of Delhi and its residents in more ways than one. As concerned groups battle the State and its subsidiary bodies in the courts of law, builders have already begun to advertise these flats.
Thankfully, public outrage forced the government to abandon the underground tunnel that was to connect the proposed site of the Games Village with south Delhi. The tunnel was to run through the historic Sunder nursery, Khusrau Park and posed a serious polluting threat to the foundations of the adjacent to Humayun’s Tomb. Now an equally ill-conceived plan of a flyover running past Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan’s tomb is in place. Most developed countries have stopped making expressways leading to the city about 25 years ago. Hosting the Common-wealth Games is a wonderful idea. But designated areas should be identified where sports villages can be built outside densely populated areas of the city.
The new Master Plan of Delhi has proposed commercial activity up to 500 metres along both sides of the Metro. The estimated land worth of the cumulative stretches of 300 km is estimated at $ 750 billion. The high stakes involved in land deals can be judged by the fact that the MCD and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation are in a legal tussle over who is to be the prime developer. While the State and the builders are all set to get richer, the residents will have to grapple with problems of health, congestion and shortage of everyday civic amenities.
The vision of an ‘India Shining’ through numerous malls has conveniently buried the visions of our founding fathers like Jawaharlal Nehru who insisted on maintaining the sanctity of our historical monuments, including the Jama Masjid. One sincerely hopes that some of their pleas are still heard. The vicinity of the Jama Masjid is the last area of Delhi that is representative of the culture of ‘purana Dilliwalas’. If the State can’t make the area more accessible to Delhi’s citizens, it should leave it alone.
Sadia Dehlvi is a writer and social activist.