Author of book 'Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi', Swapna Liddle talks at length about Delhi’s culture, history, and heritage.
Swapna Liddle’s wide and warm smile is the kind of comfort one looks for on a cold January afternoon. Her love for Delhi, its monuments, its history, resulted in a doctoral thesis on 19th century Delhi. Led by a mind trained in history, she has ambled numerous times among Delhi’s unnumbered monuments, cherishing the well known and exploring the less known. From these leisurely field trips her first book emerged: Delhi: 14 Historic Walks. Her second book was on Delhi’s bustling universe of colour, mores, and history, more mela than marketplace: Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi. Her latest, Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi, explores the making of the capital city. In a freewheeling interview, Liddle talks at length about Delhi’s culture, history, and heritage.
Delhi has a rich heritage of monuments, yet they are neglected. Where do you think the problem lies – people or the government?
Over the years, Delhi’s monuments have actually become better looked after. It’s not much about neglect but about development pressure – the pressure of a larger number of people coming to the city and building informal housing. If you look at some of Delhi’s urban villages, you will see that a monument which was out in the open earlier has now been completely blocked in, as people have built houses around it. Sometimes, people use one of the walls of a monument as the fourth wall of their house. Earlier also, monuments were neglected but at least they were not encroached upon like they are now. The problem is that we have not really thought about how to better integrate the monument into parks or open spaces. They can be made into nice public spaces. We are not thinking about it at the planning level. We don’t do any micro level planning.
Whose domain is it to protect and preserve Delhi’s monuments – the centre or the state?
It’s a complicated thing. Initially, Delhi had what are known as ASI monuments, which were centrally protected. The list included around 170 monuments – a relatively big list. But we all know that there were more than 170 monuments: the others were for a long time classified as unprotected. Slowly, Delhi became a state and INTACH started campaigning for the protection of the monuments beyond the ASI list. INTACH made a list of 1,200 buildings, including the ASI-protected structures. We tried to get them notified and protected, which took a while. Meanwhile, the Delhi state started protecting and notifying the monuments. So, as far as legal protection is concerned, we are now much ahead than we used to be. Now, the ASI protects the monuments, the Delhi state protects them, and then there is a third level of protection: public interest litigations (PILs), which have led to government action. For instance, Rashtrapati Bhawan did not earlier come under the protection of ASI or the state government’s archeology department. New bylaws were framed to recognise it as a heritage building, providing protection.
So at a legal level, we are at a good place, if compared to 20 years ago. But the problem is implementation. What we need is a much greater awareness. We have to try and persuade people that heritage is not a negative thing, it is a good thing. They should know how to manage it better and the government should also give some incentives. If haveli owners who have listed buildings are given some incentives and benefits to maintain the buildings in a proper manner, they will protect it. You cannot run heritage on sentiment. That will not help, because you are a property owner. There are practical problems. Correct policies and correct incentives are important.
The Delhi state government has a good track record as far as conservation is concerned. They have been conserving and protecting more and more monuments. So as far as conservation and protection goes, we have been making continuous progress. That process has not slowed down.
What is needed more for heritage conservation?
I’m a historian and a conservationist, so for me whatever you do, it’s too less [laughs]. The one area in which there should be more progress is privately owned heritage. You can conserve and preserve monuments, but heritage which is with people – mostly old buildings and havelis – there should be a greater support for the owners and a greater vision to preserve it. Like how can one preserve Old Delhi and how it can be made compatible with the people living there and at the same time preserving its heritage.
Giving heritage tags to old havelis has not helped much. There has been much opposition to the scheme, as people feel it takes away their power over the property.
A lot of havelis in Shahjahanabad are already on the heritage list. There is a misconception around the scheme. What does being in the heritage list mean? Suppose you own a home which is not heritage and you want to make some substantial changes to it, you need to get MCD permission for that. Similarly, if you have a heritage home, then you submit your plan to the MCD and the MCD will submit it to the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). It doesn’t mean that you cannot do this or that. Most havelis are not in the monument category, as they are homes. A haveli can be retrofitted in many ways. But the problem is that people often don’t even get MCD permission to make regular changes in regular buildings. So they feel a burden associated with the heritage building. It just requires one extra step, which is not even theirs, it is the MCD’s.
But, yes, there are some technical issues for which one needs technical help. We have been trying to persuade the MCD to set up a heritage cell which will give assistance to heritage home owners – the MCD has been positive about it. We told them to first talk to the people. They held a meeting with the heritage home owners and we distributed a small booklet, a manual in English and Hindi, which listed various FAQs and their legal implications. We (INTACH and I) think that the MCD has to be more pro-active. They have to connect with the owners and talk to them.
As mentioned in your book, Connaught Place, about the neglect of Shahjahanabad, the old city is neglected even today. Little or no emphasis has been made on its redevelopment. How can Old Delhi be restored to its lost glory?
Hopefully, people will begin to realise on their own that there is some commercial benefit in heritage. Every haveli cannot be a boutique hotel [like Haveli Dharampura]. But if you open a chai or a saree shop in a nice heritage building, it would attract people. I felt bad when McDonald’s made an ugly building [in Chandni Chowk]. They could have done a little bit more aligning with the heritage character. Let me give you an example: the Kashmere Gate market is a beautiful old picturesque kind of market. If it is nicely done and maybe Chaayos opens an outlet there – tea and coffee shops are always popular with students and there are universities there – then students would come. Once people see that it looks pretty they will come. Nowadays if something is Instagrammable it becomes popular. And once an outlet like this opens, people will see that this is a good investment. This will lead to a revival there. There can be just one or two or four Haveli Dharampuras, but it sets a trend – I’m hoping.
Anything that makes Old Delhi fashionable, particularly with the young crowd, can work. We have to preserve as much as we can and maybe a combination of some government policies as well as some sort of practical intervention by investors can help. Somebody has to see a commercial opportunity there.
Do you think the Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan will work?
I feel there is an absence of regulation in Chandni Chowk. People just park anywhere. You can see the difference in New Delhi, where traffic policemen are there if you break laws. But Old Delhi is completely neglected, even from a regulatory point of view. As far as making roads traffic-free, I feel people should have a choice. Not everybody can walk much and not everybody can get into a rickshaw. Moreover, how will you enforce such things? Will there be policemen to enforce it? How will it work out? Will the pedestrian paths be taken over by hawkers? I worry because I see there is very little regulation. Unless these things are regulated properly, I’m not sure how will it work. One good thing about the plan is that a lot of services – water and electricity lines – will be put underground. If infrastructure, pavement and drainage are improved, then it is good.
Do you think the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme will help in conservation and maintenance of monuments?
The intention behind the scheme is not bad. The problem was that it was not very clear how it would be implemented and regulated. For instance, take Red Fort. If you want to make toilets and you start digging, you don’t know its archaeology and what kind of people you should employ for that. Is there any regulation to ensure that they [private players] will employ a conservationist, architect or specialist? Or if they want to make interpretation centres and museums then what kind of expertise are they bringing in? This ambiguity led to controversy. Otherwise we should get private investment; there is nothing wrong it. But it should be done with a lot of care and oversight of professionals in the field.
How can we spread awareness about preserving our heritage?
Heritage walks is one way. School curriculums have changed a lot, and they are getting integrated with heritage. Even colleges have courses on Delhi’s history and heritage. I get approached by many colleges to take students for a walk. Awareness has definitely grown.
As a historian and conservationist, what’s your reaction when a few people assign religion to certain monuments and urge their destruction?
According to me, all this is part of our history. We have to look at things from the point of view that it is a work of art. There used to be a beautiful statue of George V inside a chhatri at India Gate. I don’t mind it being removed from there: India Gate is such a prominent central park, so why have a British king’s statue there? But the statue is now at Coronation Park and is being vandalised all the time. I feel sorry because it is such a beautiful piece of sculpture. That upsets me. Rashtrapati Bhawan was also built for the British, but we are using it now. It’s part of our history and you can admire it for its beauty.
We are witnessing a sudden road-renaming spree. But this phenomenon is not new. In the past too, roads have been renamed. Do you think such renaming degrades the heritage of these landmarks? Or it is just history in the making?
Every time you rename a road, you lose the story behind it. That is the problem. In the past, names have been changed. The question always has to be, what position are we going to take today? Will we change names or will we not? The argument that 100 years ago somebody changed the name is not good enough reason for me to change the name again. Therefore, we have to judge by what we think we should do today. I don’t believe in trying to undo historical wrongs. You will not know then where to stop. What all parts of history will you undo? My suggestion: we have expanding cities, if you want to name a road after someone, then don’t take an existing road, find a new road. Make your history that way.
How do you define Delhi’s culture?
Delhi’s culture is very adaptable. We are not parochial in Delhi. It’s a cosmopolitan place and people from all over come here with their food. It does not have a narrow cultural identity. Obviously people from Old Delhi have their own culture, but it has been evolving. Delhi people have always been adaptable, whether it comes to food or language. From centuries people have been migrating to Delhi. It has openness about its culture, which is a very important thing. The culture is very much there, it is not narrow.
(This interview appears in the February 15, 2019 edition)