Recycle and reuse are buzzwords today. The aim is to cut wastage and reduce the carbon footprint. But long before such environmental concerns crept into our lifestyles, various Delhi rulers had unhesitatingly used old building materials for the construction of new cities.
Delhi, one of the world’s fastest growing megapolises, has borne witness to the construction of several cities through its history: think Lal Kot, Kilugarhi, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Dinpanah and its extension Shergarh, Shahjahanabad, and last of all, New Delhi, built by the British when they decided to shift the imperial capital from Kolkata in 1911.
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Almost 90 years after New Delhi, India’s capital is set for another revamp, this time to accommodate growing bureaucratic needs and improve productivity. In a presentation to the Maharashtra Association of Schools of Architecture last year, project architect Bimal Patel said 22 ministries with 41,000 employees are located within the Central Vista. Some of the buildings along Rajpath are of poor quality and show inefficient land use, he said. The revamp will see 9,000 defence personnel shifting out.
The project, announced in September 2019, had heritage conservationists and historians up in arms. They feared many buildings that still had life would be demolished, disregarding environmental sustainability concerns. Planners for the Central Vista project should take a cue from past rulers, argues Swapna Liddle, Delhi historian and author of Connaught Place And The Making Of New Delhi, among other books on the Capital. “Those builders showed the way through recycling. With modern technologies, recycling is of limited scope. So it is crucial to make optimal use of buildings that already exist rather than demolishing them readily.”
But will—indeed can—any of the material from all the buildings slated for demolition be used in the new ones planned? There are no clear answers but it seems unlikely. For one, concrete, unlike stone, is not reusable. Fittings, such as doors, could be salvaged but that would take time—and the project is scheduled to be completed by 2024.
Architect Sudhir Khandelwal, who is based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, says modern construction material is mostly concrete—brick and concrete were used in the Central Vista buildings. It’s not a natural material and turns into rubble when destroyed, he says.
This does not mean nothing can be salvaged. “One can look for materials which can be carefully taken out and re-treated, like doors, but the process is costly and time-consuming. The Central Vista project is set for completion by 2024. So there is no luxury of time for salvage here. It would have taken a minimum of 12 years to include salvage,” he says. Some buildings, he adds, could have been saved and some material still salvaged. “The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, built in 1985, for instance, need not have been moved and could have been kept intact.”
Rulers in the past did recycle. In the 16th century, Sher Shah Suri used the stones of 14th century Siri for the construction of Shergarh. The walls of 17th century Shahjahanabad were built with stones that came from the abandoned buildings of Firozabad.
Liddle believes these rulers wanted to economise and save labour as well as time. Cutting stones and making bricks was a time-consuming task at the time, she says. When the British Raj built New Delhi as its new seat of power in the 1930s, too, bricks and stones from demolished structures were reused.
Delhi-based heritage activist Vikramjit Singh Rooprai says villages may have cropped up in and around Siri, originally a cantonment, by the time of Sher Shah Suri. “In those days, villagers preferred homes made of mud or wood. I am sure that they did not use the palaces or the army barracks built by (Alauddin) Khilji. Hence, it was logical for subsequent rulers, like Firoz Shah Tughlaq in this case, to use the abandoned materials for construction he undertook, instead of investing money in mining and transportation. Later, when Suri built his capital at Shergarh, he used material salvaged from Siri, Jahanpanah and Firozabad,” he notes on email.
On 15 August 1947, says writer and film-maker Sohail Hashmi, Indians took over Rajpath as free citizens. “The revamp will take away from people what they could call their own.... The Parliament building is barely 90 years old.”
Khandelwal believes the revamp was necessary. “Though everyone loves the existing architecture, it is not suitable to have such a huge expanse of land in the centre of the city,” he says. “We need buildings that serve the administration efficiently while managing open spaces and sustainability better as India has grown,” the urban designer says.
There is little doubt that a cityscape is an integral part of its history. “I cannot think of a society where a major part of history is destroyed and then people are expected to remember it,” says Rooprai. Khandelwal argues that fear of losing a part of the past should not be a reason not to make a future.
In the past, new cities were usually built to improve fortification or trade facilities. “Given the geographical settlement of the cities of Delhi, it was always feasible to build new ones. At the same time, the personal ego factor of kings also played a role,” Rooprai says.
In today’s democratic set-up, however, discussion is important. Ujan Ghosh, a Noida-based architect and urban designer, says the revamp could have been an opportunity to create a truly inclusive space. But since the work is being carried out in a hurried manner, he fears it will not remain a public space. “A lot of debate should have happened,” Ghosh says.
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.