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Don't look to UNESCO for salvation

World heritage status would be an empty achievement for Delhi

Published on 22 April 2012

Author(s): The Indian Express/Gautam Bhatia

Type:  Opinion Originally published 19 March 2012

Amongst conservationists, there is a great deal of excitement these days about the proposal of an Indian city becoming a UNESCO-recognised World Heritage City. Between Ahmedabad and Delhi, the race is on for this prestigious status.

Yet, it is just that, a status. Like the conferring of a knighthood on an already established author, in no way does the title improve future writing. If indeed Delhi gains the World Heritage status, it will be a protection merely for four specified historic zones: Nizamuddin, the Red Fort area, Qutab and Mehrauli and the Lutyens zone. UNESCO heritage norms only recognise the framework of existing bylaws and regulations; their approval merely falls within a general appreciation. Historic structures and heritage areas are worthy of protection because of their  “value to mankind as a whole”.

Delhi was once a unique urban experience. Its history and archaeological remains are perhaps second only to Rome. Earlier, the easy sighting and display of monuments within neighbourhoods of low bungalows, the ease of pedestrian movement, the emerald green of winter parks rather than the black top asphalt of parking lots, made for an effortless exchange between resident and city. The rapid decline of the city — often misrepresented as development — is an unfortunate ally of excess money and bloated private estates, a fact visible in the unbridgeable gap between people’s demands and civic reality. In dimension, scale, aesthetics, funds — what people want and what the city offers are opposing, often unmanageable compromises.

That urban life is now unintelligible is obvious in the way movement is recorded around town. No longer is it hinged to historic landmarks or monuments, but to the more persistent blemishes in the urban landscape — “Go past the unfinished flats; take a left at the broken urinal, then a right at the Pepsi hoarding”. Is this the civic language of giving directions in India’s 21st century global city? The transitory quality of urban architecture today remains the city’s most permanent attribute.

How then does a city as diverse, distended and desecrated, gain anything from the World Heritage tag? Amongst the many that are in the UNESCO list — Paris, Prague, and Rome among them — have over the centuries evolved a consensus with history and now present an amalgamated picture to the world. A happy compromise that allows historical remains to be absorbed and displayed alongside contemporary steel and glass structures. Part of the success of the European amalgamation is the outcome of an attitude of inclusion.

In any growing Indian city, however the development of something new within the acknowledgedly historic, perpetually poses challenges to architects, planners and bureaucrats. While the growing materialism of a place sends the town into a tailspin of unregulated growth, the fear of any new development can also keep the place in a state of historic stagnation.

If the UNESCO norms ensure the protection of cultural and natural heritage, the World Heritage tag is already too late for Delhi. Many of the old bungalows on Barakhamba Road and other areas of Lutyens Zone have been demolished. The physical restructuring of neighbourhoods in Nizamuddin and parts of Old Delhi, the destruction of numerous colonial landmarks, now make any form of protection only ad hoc. Without adequate redevelopment norms in the last few decades, the entire structure of the city stands denuded today, and it becomes a bit of a joke to offer protection to a place that suggests nothing of its earlier “heritage” time.

If conservationists are serious about the possibility of using UNESCO norms to salvage heritage, it may be a better idea to place smaller, seriously endangered cities on the list. Bhopal, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Varanasi, Kochi still confers lasting values of urbanity and history on their residents. The greater fear that these places will go the way of Delhi is enough reason to seek a blanket protection on their future development.

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