Tikender Singh Panwar, Anjali Ojha

The Chandni Chowk redevelopment project will be inaugurated by the chief minister of Delhi on April 17; but, the Delhi government needs to seriously reconsider the priorities of this heritage redevelopment project. There needs to be a gap analysis with historians to point to the glaring gaps of the redevelopment project.  One can make out that the real essence of Delhi is missing in this redevelopment project. One is aghast with the sordid state of design, construction material, and the removal of a large section of people from there. 

The 17th century designed Chandni Chowk by Shahjahan and Jahanara, his daughter, has seen many changes, it has metamorphosized from Shahjahan to Kejriwal era. The initial project for redevelopment was conceived by Sheela Dixit, Chief Minister of Delhi in 2008, and a special purpose vehicle was formed to carry on the tasks. It is said that after the release of Delhi-6, a Hindi film, the heritage of Delhi was considered at the highest level for re-development. It was later during the Kejriwal government that Rs 65 crore was earmarked for the project. But the outcome is not heritage development, rather it is a disaster of the erstwhile and the present. 

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Heritage re-development should match the basic ethos of the city/town/region, its spirit, culture, and conceptualization that led to the being of it. Take for example for Chandi Chowk, and Delhi for that matter, the basic ethos is pedestrianization and the culture of food, market, and living in the old Havelis there. Any re-development must have revisited these aspects of the town. 

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where one of the authors was a delegate for the UN-Habitat III world conference in October 2016. Quito has both the old and the new cities. The old, which is a UNESCO world heritage site is far remarkable than the new one. What has it done or conserved? It has conserved all the old buildings and turned them into residential places where the tourists love to stay.

The city is abuzz with activity the whole night with dances, food, fun and all that the tourists would like. But not a stone of the old was changed. There are buildings that are as old as 500 years. The only additions made are modern toilets and sanitation. Likewise, neighboring countries like Uzbekistan have developed their heritage wealth without turning old structures into ugly modern plastered buildings. Khiva is a town in Uzbekistan that has similarly developed its old town and the old houses are the best tourist destinations. 

 In the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project the problem with heritage conceptualization is that instead of preserving the old structures, a demolition drive was carried out and the old was made to disappear; this is not heritage redevelopment. Instead, metal and glass showrooms were designed and constructed along the main road. 

At Chandni Chowk, when one takes a turn into the newly constructed boulevard crossing the mighty Red Fort, the first look at the red stone-paved road shall give a feeling of continuity. However, it does not. It instead looks like a badly done patchwork.

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On this busy market street, the shops lining the new boulevard have not seen any up-gradation. The road is still clogged badly. Even though some street-side vendors are there, no space has been created for them.
Small bollards placed right in the centre of the road along with benches with no shade, create more obstruction for walkers than being of any help. The aesthetic value of the bollards is also questionable, along with their functionality. The lack of thought towards waste disposal is visible with garbage piling up at spots. 

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Such a construction of the Chandi Chowk redevelopment project reminds us of the much-hyped boulevard construction undertaken by Haussman, one of the administrators of Napoleon in Paris. Chandni Chowk reminds us of the newer form of Haussmanisation in the offing in India and particularly in larger cities. This is not sustainable at all. Right through the center, the roads are widened and the spaces of the people are taken away.

What good has happened is that all the overhead cables have gone underground. Fine, but what about the canal running right through the Chandni chowk in the 17th century and as Sohail Hashmi, a historian and associated with Delhi Walks’ point out, that the redevelopment should have actually brought the canal back. 

 At Seoul, right through the city, the people forced the metropolitan government to demolish a large flyover and instead restore a canal, and this canal is more than 7 km in length and is a completely green corridor. Such restoration was required. Instead, what the designer and the government have done in Delhi, is rampant use of red sandstone, which is alien to the city.

In none of the streets that were cobbled during the inception of this project outside material was used. As a historian points out it was the Quartz stone mined from the Aravalli hills that were used for pavements all through the streets, including Chandni Chowk. The red sandstone seen in contrast to the buildings overarching over the street exhibits a painful picture of a great mismatch. 

The green cover has completely been removed. Instead of planting trees at the center, all of them have been removed and during summers one will have a heat island effect. Since Chandni Chowk is a large wholesale market where hundreds of trucks enter and leave during the night, the red sandstone used will not even last for a year, given the strength of the load-bearing capacity of these stones. These have already started breaking and will not sustain for long. 

Instead, what the redevelopment project should have envisaged is to have an extensive dialogue with not only the important stakeholders but also people by large. Taking into consideration international experience this project could have caught the imagination of the finest planners and designers of the country and the world. The project should have incorporated ideas for developing the old for hospitality, handicrafts, tourism, musical evenings, the famous old Delhi food, etc. 

It seems that this project is more like a token tribute to the heritage whereas there is a nexus of the contractors and government who do not even have a limited sense of heritage, conservation, and people’s livelihoods. 

About the Author

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Tikender Singh Panwar, is a former deputy mayor of Shimla and an author who regularly contributes to urban matters. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi.

Anjali Ojha, is a journalist based in Delhi and currently works with Go News.