Overhaul for Town Hall — proposal draws mixed reactions from Delhiites
A simple walk through the alleys of Chandni Chowk and the general area of Old Delhi throws up a multitude of historical sites. From popular attractions like Red Fort and Jama Masjid, to hidden gems like the grave of Razia Sultana (known to be the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate) — the place is brimming with more heritage than one can cover in a day. But on closer look, one gets to notice the chinks in the armour. Majestic havelis, elaborate fountains and towering gates that once guarded the Walled City now lay in ruins and despondence. So when news of Town Hall being leased by North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) to a private hotel chain, reportedly on condition that no changes would be made to the original structure, started doing rounds afresh, it created a lot of buzz.
As per Vijay Prakash, engineering chief of NDMC, the plan is to lease it out for a period of 33 years, and add attractions like dancing fountains, crafts bazaar, museum and library. “We have made a proposal where a hotel chain can take charge of the place and make a heritage hotel. All expenses for repair and renovation would be borne by the hotel,” he says. What was the idea behind this move? “The building has been lying in neglect. This move will also help government earn revenue,” he says. Public attractions would come at a later stage. “A parking space would also be added. The proposal for all these will soon be sent separately. There would be a nominal charge for visiting these places. The work will begin in the next six months,” he says.
Town Hall was originally a caravan sarai built by Jahanara, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s elder daughter. She built a water tank in front of the sarai which used to reflect the moonlight, thus giving the place its name—Chandni Chowk. The British demolished it and built a public library and club for Europeans. Heritage enthusiast and author Sohail Hashmi says that the former MCD commissioner had approached him, about four years ago, to discuss ideas about how the building could be used. Then others came on board, by and by, to chalk out a probable plan for the place. “We proposed that this library be expanded to include every single book ever written on Delhi. Secondly, there were plans to set up a permanent exhibition on the remaining area. We had also proposed ideas for restaurants and performance spaces,” he says, adding that the former government at the centre had also allocated funds , “but then the government changed. We had planned this place in a way where the city would love to come, not an exclusive heritage hotel which will have absolutely no connection with the life of the city. It is like selling your heritage bit by bit. This will become an exclusive place, totally cut off from the city,” he says.
Historian and author Rana Safvi feels that the Town Hall is a testimony to the British rule as well as the fight against it by Indians. “They are not just leasing a building; they are leasing India’s history. If you make it a commercial complex, people will forget its historical value,” she says. Enough efforts have not been made to maintain the building, she rues. “I had to use their washroom on a recent visit, but it was stinking. Jo MCD apna washroom naa theek kar paaye, voh sheher ko kya theek karega,” she says.
However, when we spoke to locals, to understand how this move would affect the demographic, they seemed quite delighted. Shailabh Jain, 33, whose family used to run the two-centuries old Ghantewala Shahi Halwai in Chandni Chowk, feels that provisions for senior citizens and children should be part of the plan. “Building spare padhi hai, and is of no use. Private ownership will prove good for the place. With these developmental measures, government will also earn revenue,” he says.
Abu Sufiyan, founder of the online portal Purani Dilliwalo ki Baatein and resident of Daryaganj, says, “It’s a good step, as government has somehow failed to protect our history and heritage. You find drug addicts and cases of theft around Town Hall. PPP model will help in improving ambience of the area. Plus, a cultural hub will act as centre of attraction for tourists.”
For Mayank Chaturvedi, who runs the 95-year old National Electrical Services in Chandni Chowk, this move will help promote tourism. “More people will now get to know about Town Hall. Shop owners will also benefit under this plan. So all in all, it is a good move,” he says.
Muhammad Zubair, a resident of Ballimaran, believes that it is important to retain the historical value while renovating it. “It is both a good and a bad move. Good because we will be moving towards a new era, and bad because it might come at the cost of losing one’s identity. The way forward is to not tamper with historical significance when adding attractions to keep people connected with it,” he says.
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