'Selling off Delhi’s history': move to preserve heritage buildings comes under fire

The South Delhi Municipal Corporation recently moved to grant licences for private parties to use older structures as commercial venues

The 16th century Humayun's Tomb was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture over six years and completed in September 2013. Photo: Kalpana Sunder
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Walking around Delhi, the Indian capital, it’s not uncommon to bump into an ancient tomb or an arch adorned with calligraphy.

It is a city with layers and layers of culture and history woven into its urban fabric, being built and rebuilt by several emperors and dynasties such as the Sayyids, the Lodhis and the Mughals down the ages.

There are tombs, step wells and gardens, as well as heritage buildings and monuments with historical and architectural significance.

With three Unesco heritage sites from the Mughal era and more than 1,300 buildings built by powerful dynasties in the past, not all of Delhi's history is visible. Many of its old structures are hidden in small lanes and neighbourhoods, and not known to even its locals.

Heritage buildings also face the threats of vandalism, neglect and demolition as cities are in the throes of urbanisation and development.

Many recognised architectural stars such as the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan have been destroyed by development.

The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, which previously prohibited building activity within 100 metres of the limits of a monument, was amended on the grounds that it “adversely affected various public works and developmental projects of the government".

Agrasen ki Baoli, designated a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India, in the heart of New Delhi. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Now, a move by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation to preserve such structures has come under fire, as it aims to grant licences for private parties to use heritage buildings for commercial venues such as restaurants, guest houses and shopping centres, with the private party bearing the cost of renovation and maintenance of the property for 20 years.

What categorises India's heritage buildings?

“Heritage structures in the country are classified into three categories – national, state and city," says Divay Gupta, principal director of architectural heritage at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, or Intach, in Delhi.

"The national monuments are those of great national historical importance and are protected. The state also protects monuments relevant to the state’s history. Those buildings on the city list are regulated and notified but not protected."

Only a few showstopper heritage buildings are taken up for protection by the government through the Archaeological Survey of India.

For a building to be listed by the ASI, it has to be at least 100 years old and of "national importance". At present more than 3,600 monuments across India are protected by the survey.

Some international organisations, such as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, have restored monuments in a public-private partnership, including the recent Sabz Burj – a double monument with Timurid art – and the 28-hectare Sunder Nursery.

Factors including age, historical, archaeological and architectural significance and state of preservation are looked into before deciding the list of protected monuments and buildings.

The illuminated Sabz Burj tomb, which is part of the Humayun's Tomb Complex, in New Delhi. AFP

What happens then to the less known structures? The State Archaeology Department identified about 238 of them in Delhi, including the Tomb of Bagichi in the Delhi Golf Club and Kharbooza ka Gumbad in Sheikh Sarai, in 2008.

It signed a pact with Intach for their restoration and preservation in phases. Old Delhi is dotted with hundreds of havelis and heritage homes, many of which are in need of conservation.

The 19th-century Haveli Dharampura in Old Delhi was restored into a heritage hotel and restaurant six years ago, and earned a special mention in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage conservation in 2017.

Why the move to private is controversial

Many other precious structures with history remain neglected, and continue to languish without the necessary protection.

Conservation of heritage structures is a highly niche skill which cannot be outsourced to private entities with no experience in conservation.

Intach says more than 1,200 structures are listed as heritage buildings in Delhi, of which ASI protects only 174.

As long as specific guidelines for each heritage structure are laid down so that its historical character is preserved, adaptive reuse which breathes fresh life into these historical structures is a great idea
Swapna Liddle, author and historian

This is why the South Delhi Municipal Corporation move has come under fire, with opposing factions saying it's “selling off Delhi’s history".

According to a report, before taking the property on lease, the private party has to submit the "drawings and design modifications to be made, along with a structural stability certificate, from a registered architect".

There are as many as 475 heritage properties on the list, many from the Mughal period and some built after India’s independence, with the oldest being an ancient reservoir built during the Tomar dynasty.

“As a theory it is a great idea to lease out these heritage structures that are not protected and are deteriorating to private parties for commercial use," Mr Gupta says.

"But what’s important is there should be strict regulations in place about what they can and cannot do with the building, otherwise its heritage character will be lost."

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It's not the first time that private entities have been brought in to manage heritage structures.

In 2018, a corporate group, Dalmia Bharat, adopted the historic Red Fort in Old Delhi under a government’s Adopt a Heritage scheme after signing a contract with the Ministry of Tourism for the next five years.

While some praised the move, others protested against it, questioning the capability of Dalmia Bharat Group, which is in the cement business, to manage a historical site.

Clear guidelines are needed

“As long as specific guidelines for each heritage structure are laid down so that its historical character is preserved, adaptive reuse which breathes fresh life into these historical structures is a great idea for these buildings, which would otherwise deteriorate or be encroached upon," says noted author and historian Swapna Liddle.

"All over the world new uses for old heritage buildings are in vogue, and not all buildings can be converted into museums.

"So any new use like a restaurant or boutique – as long as it follows the guidelines and does not compromise its identity or character – is a chance to preserve and use that building.”

But the politics of heritage conservation has many nuances. The original architectural elements and built form have to be respected. It needs to be reimagined with the participation of communities who have used the spaces in the past.

The question of ownership is debatable. There are villagers who have been occupying heritage structures over decades and their ancestors have lived there before them. Is their eviction justified?

“We must appreciate out-of-the-box thinking like leasing out heritage structures for private use, and using that revenue to maintain the property," Gupta says.

"But Indian sensibilities also have to evolve where, like in Europe, even if heritage structures are adapted for commercial use, we make sure that we take care of our heritage and pay value to its original character."

Updated: January 31, 2022, 3:29 AM