YES, PRIME MINISTER?
Mr. Prime Minister,
Thank-you for ushering in the hopes of an era of Development-oriented Politics in an India that is celebrating its 68th Independence Day - an India that was envisioned as a place “Where the Mind is without Fear…” and where you have now diagnosed that “Mind is never a problem. Mindset is…”
Without getting into the intellectual distinctions of various models of Development (be it Gujarat/ Gandhian/ Internationally-accepted Economic and Popular models), I would like to draw your attention to the “Soul of Delhi” (or “Dilli ki Jaan” as one of the AAP leaders described it and is seconded by many citizens) – the Walled City of Shahjahanabad centered at Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi – an area which holds marginal interest for the Delhi Development Authority; as it is not really a “development area” from their perspective; and now falls under the jurisdiction of Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (as a practicing Urbanist, one wonders if the distinctions between the phenomena of Regeneration or Redevelopment are clearly known before spinning off new government machinery!).
1000 cr and Change are your contributions to the popular vocabulary in this era. The hotbed of a Rs. 1000 cr Urban Regeneration Project in-the-making in the coming 5 years stands at the threshold of change – or does it (as the cynics would question)? “A people's relationship to their heritage is the same as the relationship of a child to its mother” (John Henrik Clarke). The Walled City area (over 500 ha with the maximum density reaching 1000+ ppl/ ha) has stood testimony to the rigors of time, the rise and fall of multiple regimes and is truly representative of the heterogeneity of India itself has not been declared as “Living Heritage” of national significance in its 366 yrs of overall existence and 67 yrs of existence in Independent India! I do hope that the ensuing 365 days will finally recognize it thus and not just as a “Special Zone” (whatever that implies!)…
For its steadfastness, resilience, warmth, hospitality and close-knit secular yet diverse social fabric, and not to forget the chaos –it is a mixed, but memorable experience as a visitor to be in the environs of Chandni Chowk – the 1.4 km long ancient “Canal-Vista” from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid. The options of exploring Malliwara-Dariba Kalan and Ballimaran are both as safe and inviting, as the choice of consuming the “desi-ghee parathas and jalebis” and “Karim’s mouth-watering delicacies” or enjoyably participating in the kite-flying festival on Independence Day or Eid around Jama Masjid.
[Historic Photos Source: National Archives, New Delhi]
But, for the residents and those whose livelihood depends on the area (please do remember this is not a fossilized heritage but a local economy hub which offers one of the best bargains in Asia) – to stay and work here is a jedojehad (no other word can describe the struggle for survival on a daily basis better). My question to you is when will the good days/ “achche din”come for the rickshaw-wala operating in the area whose income has halved since the launch of the e-rickshaw - who shudders at the idea of entering a jam and who just came to know about the ensuing transformation in his livelihood on the arrival of PWD on site for road-widening at Chandni Chowk last month; the haath-gaadi wala who has to pass the survival of the fittest test everyday transporting goods out of Chawri or Sadar Bazaar (also existed during the Mughal era); the 70 yr old widow who turned thus in 1977 and survives on a meager govt. pension of Rs. 4500/- paying a monthly rent of Rs. 5/- and who would like to walk to the temple but cannot. What about the old resident of Kinari Bazaar who perennially waits for an alternative solution to the sword hanging over his head (overhead electric cables) in his lifetime, and shrugs his shoulders on hearing about the Chandni Chowk Urban Regeneration Proposal approved in 2010? He laments “no development work has happened here in the last 20 years…nobody listens to us…what’s the big deal with the tram proposal – the same thing existed 60 years back too!” These are not statistics Mr. Prime Minister – but real faces – real people with real problems that need to be alleviated. Do they not deserve good days/ “achche din”? Does one necessarily have to succumb to a comment made by a govt. authority post-holder – “Indian people can do with all the diggings and diversions…” Does the Citizenry not really need or deserve Urban Management?
“The Chandni Chowk Urban Regeneration Proposal is a superficial one. It does not address the need/ greed/ fear of the common man!” We left it out of our Delhi Assembly Elections manifesto on purpose. Restore the Walled City area to its Mughal glory and you will recover the cost of investments in a year”, mentions the AAP Campaign Manager for the Chandni Chowk constituency. As a neutral Urbanist, one wonders why such an environmental-friendly alternative Vision of restoring and recharging the Chandni Chowk central canal (vis a vis running the colonial tram which will further disturb the visual integrity across the Chandni Chowk “boulevard”) was not considered, where international precedence of breaking down entire highways to restore the historic Cheonggyecheon Stream to revitalize Seoul as a Cultural City (from its former Industrial Image) was undertaken successfully in 2003 in Asia. Now that the PWD is finally executing the much-awaited project, have we lost this Mega-Opportunity? One also wonders why the Feasibility, Social and Environmental Impact Assessment Reports (all mandatory processes undertaken prior to the approval of a project of this scale) for this 4-yr old Project cannot be located…
Please do also consider the dilemma of young and internationally qualified consultants who are “systematically” discouraged from finding innovative solutions to wicked problems like these. For in reality, often there exists a status-quo agenda from the leadership OR the entry-barrier is too difficult OR such huge gaps exist in the federal policy structure that when they are appointed and paid for a local project - they need to address the gaps at the state and national level for non-existent or obsolete policies; while national and international research communities continue to delve into paid-for conceptual research for years without a problem-solving focus, citing cases of projects where the development pressure has ceased to exist! When will their good days/ “achche din” arrive?
“A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Mr. Prime Minister, while you make your first address to the nation this Independence Day and reach out to the citizens from the ramparts of the Red Fort – very much a part of this Living Heritage and Chandni Chowk enjoys “Raahgiri Day”, I request you to remember the plight of all the citizens mentioned above; for they are also trying to reach out to you…
That DIALOGUE is the beauty of our DEMOCRACY! For whatever maybe the model of development, it still needs to have a humanitarian focus and be all-encompassing AND “Every Prime Minister…has the responsibility to provide security for his people” (Ehud Olmert)
: “An urban EXPLORER”
Ritu Verma is an Urban Thinker & Public Good Specialist who has worked nationally and internationally on innovative public projects India, China, Qatar and Libya. Educated at IIT Roorkee and NUS Singapore, she heads urban EXPLORERS – an “artistic urbanism” consultancy firm which specializes in shaping urban transformations for the generation of CREATIVE & SUSTAINABLE Cities, premise being that culture is the core of our Cities