Lutyens’ Delhi: Of Monuments and Metaphors

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Malvika Singh in conversation with Somnath Batabyal

Citizens should “take ownership” of their city spaces to create a workable city, claims Delhi biographer Malvika Singh. The author of many books about the city elaborated: “The main point is citizens should take ownership of their spaces, protest, walk the talk and not just take what is doled out.”

She was joined by “Delhi outsider” Somnath Batabyal, whose debut thriller is set in present day Delhi, and peopled with “police, criminals and journalists.” The pair read from each other’s books to pay homage to the city.

Singh observed that the city has “mushroomed in a very haphazard way” since the 1950s, with different colonies springing up, such as the lawyers’ colony and a colony for people displaced from East Pakistan.

Before that, Edwin Lutyens’ “imperial capital” was a planned space. Lutyens really studied the city and considered what was needed, with roads designed to follow wind patterns and keep the city cool.

Singh described “the horror of Delhi” that has grown piecemeal in the last 15 years, without city planning in a way that works for its residents. “We destroyed an entire era of beautiful city planning in Delhi.”

She cited the building of Delhi’s Metro as the catalyst for this change, which made the city “metropolitan with flyovers.” “The Metro was a leveller and is now becoming a city, rather than little pockets, totally disconnected from the Old Delhi of Shah Jahan.”
Singh is no fan of concrete buildings championed by Le Corbusier, describing the “middle class slum” of concrete flats that have built up as “just ghastly”. Instead, she advocates consulting residents to find out what they want, and to allow them to build in basements to keep their homes cooler.

Singh quipped: “Now we have Smart Cities, India is gong to be connected with wifi – we don’t have electricity but we will have wifi.”

Batabyal’s book extract poignantly described how slum colonies were destroyed in readiness for one of Asia’s largest games – the 1982 Asia Games – and how the townships that grew up in its wake were again removed 30 years later for the Commonwealth Games.

The audience wanted to know how to create cities for the future. Singh cited Udaipur as an example of a city that worked well, and suggested that city planning should include green policies and trees, and the maintenance of neighbourhood facilities, such as keeping flower markets near community centres.

Singh also wants to see historic buildings rescued from their current use as “filthy courts and railway booking offices” and turned into centres of crafts or museums, and areas pedestrianised to give them back to the city. “Bring the soul back into the city, leave the concrete out.”

– By Julia Gregory

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