Conservationists have protested against plans to demolish the New Delhi government-owned historic houses worth $10.8 billion
When New Delhi was inaugurated in 1932 as the symbol of British might in India, its architect and planner, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, believed that it would reflect imperial rule for the next 300 years. He wanted an inscription in the Viceroy’s (now President’s) Palace to conclude: “So all men may know the greatness of India”.
Nearly 60 years after independence, Delhi’s politicians and bureaucrats have different ideas. Last year, the central government’s Urban Development Ministry proposed to demolish around half of the 104 bungalows in Lodhi Estate, which forms part of a 2,800-acre area officially designated as Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (LBZ), protected since 1980. The ministry owns the bungalows and allots them to MPS, bureaucrats and political party members. The bungalows are rent-free. This attempted “redensification” aroused the wrath of conservationists, which put the proposal on hold.
However, the ministry has recently released a list of 38 MPs and others who have made alterations to their bungalows without permission. These include the headquarters of the Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata party. Occupants have renovated rooms and even added swimming pools. MPs are seeking to amend the LBZ guidelines to regularise unauthorised construction and permit alterations in future. The ministry is warning that an MP can lose his bungalow as a consequence of unauthorised work.
Mahesh N. Buch, who headed an official committee six years ago to establish rules for the former imperial precinct, said that he had been under pressure not only from the Urban Development Minister but from Vice President Krishan Kant to relax the restrictions in the zone. The value of this real estate was officially put at $10.8 billion.
The controversy has sparked off a lively debate in Delhi, with architect Gautam Bhatia, known for his iconoclastic books which include Punjabi Baroque, a critique of Delhi’s eclectic building styles, arguing that the bungalows are a colonial legacy which ought to be done away with in a more egalitarian age. “In its original incarnation, the bungalow represented a colonial life suited to the difficulties of being English in an alien land”, he says.
Others like Nalini Thakur, a conservation architect, assert that the LBZ is potentially a World Heritage Site. “It has to be understood as a total spatial entity which give New Delhi its integrity”, has said. “Lutyens’ Delhi needs a management plan which will regulate the degree of change that can be allowed. There are many things happening. The entire clerks’ quarters—the subaltern component —has been demolished”.