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Blinded by speed

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:29 IST

A sense of deja vu. That is the initial feeling when someone like me — accustomed for professional reasons to reading about monument destruction in 19th century India — sets out to examine what the Hindustan Times on February 7 described as ‘The Monument or Metro muddle’, where it wondered whether the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) would ride over heritage concerns. Deja vu, because this has a familiar ring to it. It is reminiscent of what followed the introduction of the railway system in India in 1853.

The railways linked different parts of India but also radically altered the character of many monuments and mounds. The search for ballast resulted, for instance, in the destruction of 36 temples at Tigowa in Jabalpur. Old brick structures at Harappa, the very same place after which India’s most ancient civilisation is known, were also dismantled to provide ballast for the Lahore-Multan railway line. Our British rulers were willing to allow such collateral damage because the vast profits that would accrue with the opening up of India were more important than the heritage of their colony. So, when HT asks whether parts of Delhi’s past, from the Red Fort to Bahawalpur House, will be compromised by the DMRC as it constructs its Central Secretariat to Kashmiri Gate line, the impression of continuity with our nation’s colonial past, where monuments were sacrificed for a rail system, is naturally very strong.

And yet, there are important differences, because unlike the 19th, today there is legislation which provides a security blanket around monuments. This, in fact, is what makes the case of the DMRC different from the destruction wrought by the railways in India.

That a security net ought to be created around heritage buildings can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1955, he complained to the Union minister for education that India’s old and historical places were getting spoilt by new buildings being put up around them. In order to protect them from such intrusion, Nehru suggested that the government can “lay down that within a a certain area no building should be put up without permission”. An example of Nehru’s proactive approach on this protective barrier is the enclosure encircling the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana. This was done after Nehru had visited it and suggested that the adjacent grounds be converted into a small garden or park because, as he put it, he “did not want what was called by the uncouth name of ‘Nizamuddin Extension East’” to extend into the area around the tomb.

Nehru’s idea found its way into the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules of 1959 which were further amplified by a Gazette notification of 1992. Last year, this security buffer was brought within the ambit of the Ancient Monuments and Ancient Sites and Remains (Amendment & Validation) Act. Of this, a minimum 100 metre band — designated as the prohibited zone — is sacrosanct. Construction and development in the regulated zone — extending to a distance of 200 metres from the limit of the prohibited zone — would be permitted but after it had been considered by the National Monuments Authority of India (NMA).

Piloted by the UPA, this legislation was supported across party lines in March 2010. Some months later, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presented a ‘Report to People’ to mark the completion of the first year of his government’s second five-year term, he highlighted this amendment especially the fact (I am quoting from that report) that it “prohibits construction, including public projects, within the 100 metre prohibited area”. Surely, if these are the legal provisions, why is there a fear that they may not be complied with by the DMRC, as HT’s report hints?

This is because the DMRC, to put it most charitably, is not perceived as either being sensitive to monuments or green spaces or the character of urban spaces. In 2006, it planned to construct an elevated corridor of concrete very close to the Qutub Minar, which only failed to materialise because of public pressure and the fear of jeopardising the Qutub’s World Heritage status. But there are such corridors that cut through green spaces like Maharaja Agrasen Park near Kashmiri Gate and within the green belt near Nehru Place. Is this lack of sensitivity because the DMRC does not employ urban planners who would factor in such concerns when preparing alignments and planning for utilities?

Nor is the DMRC perceived as being particularly law abiding. Take the case of DMRC stations. Making a mockery of the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) Act, usually, these are already more than half-built before the DMRC sends them for consideration to the DUAC. In much the same way the Master Plan is known to have been sometimes ignored by the DMRC. A specific instance is the residential complex of three 14 to 16-storeyed towers that it proposes to build adjacent to the Vishwavidyalaya station at the University of Delhi, and in the immediate vicinity of the residence of the vice-chancellor. The Master Plan for Delhi 2021 specifically mandates that there should be restrictions on tall buildings in areas like the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, Civil Lines and North Delhi Campus. However, ignoring the law, the DMRC has already auctioned the land and has allotted it to a powerful builder. And following a familiar pattern, the scheme has still not been sent to the DUAC for clearance.

And so, what the HT describes as a monument versus Metro debate is equally a question of the Metro versus the law. If political will does not intervene to ensure that the laws passed by Parliament are followed in the national capital, with the Metro expanding its scale of operations, such violations will increase manifold in other cities across India.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi The views expressed by the author are personal.