Planners take heritage walk through walled city

By Shweta Srinivasan, IANS,

New Delhi : Undaunted by the ever-buzzing crowds in the market places and narrow alleyways of the walled city, city planners and UNESCO urban planning experts embarked on a heritage walk here Wednesday.

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This ended with an array of speculation on conserving the area, mostly on how to oust the “wholesale” squatters and get the community to care about their heritage.

The walled city now appears as lanes after lanes of wholesale markets selling bulk paper, hardware and other products.

The walk began from the quaint 17th century Anglo Arabic School buildings that also includes the protected Ghaziuddin Khan’s tomb which till six years ago served as the Zakir Hussain college and went through the serpentine narrow streets in Ballimaran and Kucha Pati Ram along which unauthorised slum residences have cropped up over the decades.

There have been talks in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) about removing 174 encroachments from the Chowk Shah Mubarak to widen the road that some times narrows to five feet. This would be done to ensure passage for pedestrians and access for water tankers and fire brigade services, Ballimaran councillor Renuka Gupta told IANS. “They will be relocated nearby.”

But residents here like Om Prakash, 89, who tried to limp along with a cane as far as he could, said that “removing and relocating homes is not right”.

“My family has lived here since the time of my great great grandfather. They shouldn’t displace us. We have been a part of this walled city for too long. If it’s passage they want why not create a bridge or flyover or restrict movement of motor vehicles and rickshaws,” he said.

A tangled web of wires and cables conspicuously imposed upon the skyline but couldn’t keep the magnificent domes of the Jama Masjid from sight. Students of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) who also participated watched in awe during the walk and clicked away.

A senior SPA professor, who wished to remain anonymous said: “I have lived in Delhi for so long. But I haven’t seen the walled city. Now I can see I really missed such a rich, dynamic culture.”

Organised by UNESCO-UN HABITAT in collaboration with the MCD, the walk ended at the Town Hall building and MCD headquarters – but not before witnessing the bustling scene at Nai Sadak. Compared to the old city, here recent constructions have followed modern norms but the wider roads don’t escape load-cart pushers who give competition to the average pedestrians not to mention the “hissing” cycle-rickshaw pullers.

The entire area is a thriving wholesale market for books where nervous vendors scampered to remove illegal displays from pavements fearing action from MCD on seeing the delegation walking.

For long there have been talks on preserving the heritage of the walled city here — but with just vague mention in the capital’s redevelopment plan designed many times based on census as old as 1962 and 2001. On Wednesday, there was finally a faint start with the walk.

Experts from UNESCO firmly believe that the only way to bring about any conservation in this highly populated area is to involve the community.

“There has been no assessment of the type of buildings, the demographics for the longest time. There has been no feasibility study I think that is the first step,” said Marcellor Balbo, chairman of UNESCO’s department for social inclusion in urban policies and practices and University of Venice professor.

“It is high time someone raises alarm on the state of affairs. The decay of heritage has to stop now but we alone can’t do that. Planners, communities, as well as others must take part,” said Marina Faetanini, programme specialist, social and human sciences, UNESCO.

For this, Faetanini said UNESCO had put together a guide for urban actors in historic districts of India – a social human approach for sustainable revitalization as well as training tool kits.

After listening to the experts, MCD is likely to take the lead soon.