Here’s Why Delhi Isn’t A World Heritage City 

Was the builder’s lobby responsible for Delhi having lost its chance to be named a World Heritage City?

5 min read
Hindi Female

Delhi is one of the world’s oldest cities, where monuments unexpectedly crop up amid roads and lanes. Depending on where you are in the city, you could be close to one of at least seven ancient capitals set up by emperors and badshahs of various dynasties.

So why did the Indian government withdraw its nomination from the UNESCO World Heritage City list?

Part of the answer could be the capital’s builders’ lobby that is eyeing the sprawling Lutyens’ Delhi, home to Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb and Lodi Gardens.

Was the builder’s lobby responsible for Delhi having lost its chance to be named a World Heritage City?

Delhi's Nomination Was Not 'Anti-Development'

Delhi’s nomination proposal, which took five years of meticulous planning, was withdrawn by the Union Culture Ministry in May 2015 on the grounds that it is ‘anti-development’.

The proposal had covered two main areas – Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (LBZ) and Shahjahanabad in the old city which includes Red Fort and Jama Masjid. It had even been green-lighted by all government departments in the central and state governments and various municipal bodies.

AGK Menon, a heritage conservationist who prepared the proposal, said the move shows that India lacks the concept of urban heritage. Citing examples of cities such as Paris, Rome, Venice and others, he said:

Out of more than 220 World Heritage Cities, not a single one is in India. This is because our understanding of urban heritage does not exist.

“It appears that the World Heritage City tag may hamper development. We knew the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) earlier too had concerns. But only 2 percent of the total area of Delhi was nominated. I tried to reason with them that the rest 98 percent was free for development but to no avail,” Menon added.

Was the builder’s lobby responsible for Delhi having lost its chance to be named a World Heritage City?
India Gate at night. The monument lies in Lutyens Bungalow Zone, built by the British. (Photo: iStock)

UNESCO India head Moe Chibba felt it was “unfortunate” that two departments, the Culture Ministry and Urban Development Ministry could not arrive at a consensus before finalising the proposal.

The issue was compounded by the fact that Delhi, particularly the old city, is a beehive of economic activity. According to Chibba, what sets Indian cities apart from most European cities and some Asian cities on the World Heritage list is the country’s population.

“Those cities have less to worry about migrants than Delhi, for example,” Chibba said. India also has a number of rules and regulations in place, she added, as well as “too many” departments which often have overlapping mandates.

But if the government cited the fear that World Heritage status would mean an end to development, what of local laws which don’t permit such development?

Both Lutyens’ Delhi and Shahjahanabad are marked as ‘heritage areas’ in Delhi’s Master Development Plan.


Builders' Lobby Eyeing Lutyens Bungalow Zone?

Referring to the issue as “highly contentious”, Menon explained that the government is now considering altering the laws to construct high-rises in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone.

Professor Chetan Vaidya, Director of School of Planning and Architecture explained that a number of regulations and court orders prevent construction in the zone.

Maybe the time was too short for this government to understand the implications. The task of heritage and development co-existing is not so difficult if a proper heritage management plan is in place.

Menon agreed. “Are we a banana republic that whoever comes to office can change laws? This is a very arrogant stand taken by the government – ‘we can redo laws, redo master plan, redo emergency’. It’s not going to be that simple. There are rules in place. We have to understand what LBZ stands for.”

The heritage conservationist feels the move to withdraw the UNESCO nomination might have been to please the builder lobby.

One viewpoint is if the colonial and Mughal heritage is our own. Heritage is, after all, heritage but many feel this government does not think so. The other point is that urban land is a great money spinner. Developers play an important role in financing elections and this is a way to return their favours. LBZ is a very valuable real estate.
Was the builder’s lobby responsible for Delhi having lost its chance to be named a World Heritage City?
Lodi Gardens, built the Lodhi and Sayyid dynasties in the pre-Mughal period. (Photo: iStock)

Heritage Conservation Should Be Incentivised

Ratish Nanda, Director of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, feels that unless heritage conservation is “incentivised”, results will be hard to achieve. While New York has an estimated 29,000 protected buildings, the whole of India has only 15,000.

Even 68 years after independence, the government has not been able to incentivise preservation of India’s built heritage. We pride ourselves as an ancient civilisation yet in the whole country we protect less than half of the number of protected heritage buildings in New York City.
Ratish Nanda

UNESCO norms, Nanda explains, only require ‘outstanding universal value’ of the heritage area to be preserved and that they don’t halt any sustainable development. In New Delhi’s case, this would probably mean only that the garden city character is preserved, but new construction, reuse and renovation of older buildings, and change of land-use could be carried out.

“There remains a suspicion of any conservation objective. This can only change with demonstration of conservation effort leading to development as well as by including incentives for stakeholders,” Nanda says.


Tourism to Delhi Would Have Increased

Prof Vaidya, however, feels that in any case, India shouldn’t have withdrawn the proposal. “The whole process will now take a couple of years. Because of a change in government, the whole context has changed. The next proposal would have to be better linked to the master development plan.”

By withdrawing the proposal, experts also believe that Delhi has lost out on a major economic advantage.

“Statistics show that a declared heritage city brings in 2-3 times as much tourism. Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, both World Heritage Sites, are major attractions. Just like Rome. People go to Italy and spend 2-3 days in Rome, Venice. The entire economy booms. Delhi’s havelis are falling apart and you would have had a reason to develop them. Transport, home stays, bed and breakfast schemes – all would have developed,” Menon concludes.

(This article was first published on 18 April 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of World Heritage Day.)

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