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Give up the palaces

Time to redesign Lutyens' Bungalow Zone in Delhi

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

The ministry of urban development, according to several newspaper reports, plans to dismantle around 500 bungalows in what is known as the Lutyens' Bungalow Zone of central New Delhi. The ministry's plan is that these will be rebuilt in an approximation of the bungalows' original style, but with various expensive modern conveniences like modular kitchens. They will also be structurally more sound, building in earthquake resistance among other things. Fortunately, this proposal has not yet been cleared by the Cabinet, which is required - the expenditure is substantial, reportedly around Rs 2.7 crore per bungalow. The Cabinet should agree to the proposed demolition - but not to the rebuilding. The time has come for Lutyens' bungalows to be consigned to history. The Republic of India should never have made place for them, and now there is an opportunity to correct that mistake.

The centre of Delhi is an urban planner's nightmare. It is leafy and green, certainly; but it makes the lives of those on the margins a nightmare, enforcing long commutes across vast distances. As the National Capital Region expands into its northwest and southeast, with congested colonies coming up kilometres from public transport and decent roads, the cost of maintaining India's rulers in the splendour to which they have become accustomed piles up. Delhi is a strange inversion, unlike any other major city in the world: the heart of town is a suburban Arcadian paradise, while its margins become congested inner-city replacements, but without the conveniences. In this reversion of common sense and natural justice, the heavy hand of state power is evident. This needs to be reversed. There are around 1,200 houses in the vast stretch that is the Lutyens' Bungalow Zone. Without compromising on tree cover, each 2-3 acre plot could instead accommodate three or four residences, and even the occasional multi-storey building. Plans for this rebuilding were announced in 2004 and each time have stumbled on bureaucratic resistance - unsurprising, given who aspires to the bungalows in question. That this government has not even attempted to argue again for those rebuilding plans reveals the degree to which arrogance has entrenched itself in the ruling dispensation.

Jawaharlal Nehru, when speaking of New Delhi, called it "a visible symbol of British power, with all its ostentation and wasteful extravagance". Sadly, the clarity of his insight into Delhi's imperialist geography did not mean that he acted on changing it. Instead, the nominally egalitarian government of which he was the first head moved effortlessly into the homes created for the twice-born of the Raj. That act had its inevitable consequence: the patterns of domination, exclusion and hierarchy that were developed by the British were replicated by the new Indian state. The Lutyens' Bungalow Zone sits at the heart of a city designed with the interests of the rulers in mind. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India, New Delhi was structured around "the creating and ranking of social structures ... its hexagonal grids were demarcated into segments for 'gazetted officers', European 'clerks' and Indian 'clerks' ... distance from the central acropolis was gauged by rank". Perhaps that is the most important reason to redesign central Delhi, and to abandon the imperial fantasy that is Lutyens' Delhi forever. India's bureaucratic, political and judicial elite have comfortably insulated themselves from the real world, with excellent health care all paid for - even abroad, if desired - and various other perks. This has contributed to the anger being harnessed by Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. If the traditional parties truly wish to reduce their distance from those they rule, let them start by giving up their palaces, to begin with.

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First Published: Tue, January 07 2014. 21:40 IST