Delhi is known for its rich and varied built heritage. It is also known for its numerous and growing problems typical of ‘third world mega-cities’. It is, therefore, a city where the past and the present stake competing claims on planning for the future. The Master Plan for Delhi provides the statutory framework for Delhi’s planned development. It is noteworthy that the conservation profession in Delhi was virtually non-existent when the Master Plan promulgated in 1962 was being prepared and still to come of age when it was being revised to be approved in 1990. Master Plan provisions, nevertheless, permit an arguably adequate framework for heritage interventions to fit comfortably in the rest of the development framework.

In 1962 the Plan emphatically underscored the ‘present reality basis’ of its land use planning (p.5), reflected in its detailed proposals for existing development, including ‘preserving pleasant and unique character’ (p.6), comprehensive renewal ’ encompassing conservation, rehabilitation and redevelopment (p.26), integration of existing areas into new development (p.27), etc. The system of inter-connecting city-wide green linkages, one of the most remarkable features of the Plan, is explicitly viewed as a tool for development of places of historical and natural value (p.9, p.32). Forty years later, these concepts continue to provide the underpinnings of heritage interventions. The revised Master Plan approved in 1990 reiterates conservation, revitalisation and upgradation imperatives in respect of traditional and historic pockets (p.7). It designates a large area as ‘special area’ (p.46) under the provisions of its enabling Act and spells out separate regulations inclusive of guidelines for preparation of schemes for it (pp.82-84). The Plan undeniably accords significance to Delhi’s heritage by explicating its conservation as one of eight ‘concepts underlying the plan’, emphasising ‘modernisation with conservation’ (p.IV). It requires all 1321 historical monuments, sites and buildings that had been identified by the Archaeological Survey of India by the time the Plan was prepared to be ‘suitably incorporated’ in the course of preparation of layout plans. For major monuments it requires Zonal plans to designate building control areas around them. It requires all conservation areas to be suitably treated for landscape and as far as possible also utilised for social and cultural activities. It designates areas ‘with concentration of historical buildings’ as ‘controlled conservation areas’ for formulation of special development plans for conservation and improvement’ (p.39).

It is impossible to argue that the broad framework of the statutory provisions of Delhi’s Master Plan is, in any way, contrary to the interests of protecting the city’s heritage. As a corollary, it is inexplicable why the heritage protection agenda for the city is not evolving within the ambit of this statutory framework, which, after all, is the encompassing framework that can potentially resolve inter-sectoral conflicts. Conversely, interventions made or priorities set outside of it, even if appearing appropriate from an intra-sectoral perspective, may not quite ‘fit’ the larger picture and may, in fact, inadvertently ‘mess it up’.

The following ‘case study’ is not one that has been ‘systematically selected’ through any robust or rigorous research method. I am not competent to do such an exercise, being only a planner. This is just a case, or rather a conflict, that I stumbled upon. Rather than to the particularities of the matter, I wish to draw through it attention to the larger questions that they raise. I believe these questions beg urgent attention for two reasons. One, there appears to be an emergent ‘crisis of indiscipline’ in the conservation profession ’ reflected, for instance, in seemingly arbitrarily set priorities for intervention or research ’ that seems to be constraining the evolution of a theory or at least consensus on what the city’s heritage needs. Two, the obfuscation of the broader agenda by projectised interventions (certainly ‘defendable’ but, nevertheless, parts not quite adding up to the whole) that is resulting from this is especially worrying at a time when the Master Plan is under revision.

Sultangarhi Tomb area: Imperatives and recent interventions

The area around Sultangarhi tomb (the first monumental Sultanate tomb built by Iltutmish in 1231 AD and a duly notified protected monument) has, besides the ruins in its immediate vicinity, the historic village of Mahipalpur (set up when the kasba that grew around the Tomb was abandoned around the 17th century, but already having since the 14th century a hunting lodge and bundh and tank built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq) as well as several other historic water management structures yet to be fully documented. Other settlements in the area include quarry workers’ settlements established in the ’50s and currently housing well over a thousand families and the flatted residential area of Vasant Kunj developed over the last 15 years by Delhi Development Authority for about 20,000 families. The entire area fell beyond the urbanisable limits as per the Master Plan of 1962, primarily for reasons of constrained water sources. Vasant Kunj was developed in departure from the Plan in the ’80s and post-facto earmarked residential in the revised Plan approved in 1990. By then, however, a nagging ‘water problem’ was already evident and the rest of the area was earmarked agricultural and water body, inclusive of green belt, as before and designated J-zone. Vasant Kunj itself was included in F-zone, Zonal Plan for which was drafted in 1993. The Zonal Plan for J-zone has yet to be prepared.

Development imperatives within the ambit of the Master Plan relate perhaps most significantly to carrying capacity concerns. 15 years after development of Vasant Kunj started, only about a fourth of its designed water demand is met through river water supply. Failure to integrate pre-existing settlements into new development as well as to check unauthorised development has added unintended water demand, leading to serious depletion of ground water. The area was duly notified as a critical area in 1998 and its water problem appears headed towards becoming intractable. A related imperative concerns regional dispersal, crucial for keeping city population within carrying capacity. The area includes part of the inviolable green belt proposed in the Master Plan in 1962 as a tool for ensuring dispersal by limiting sprawl. Sultangarhi Tomb itself sits in this green belt, as do the quarry workers’ settlements in its vicinity. Other development imperatives have to do with ‘backlog’ on implementation of statutory entitlements for housing, etc for the old settlements in the area.

Heritage imperatives within the ambit of the Master Plan fall in two categories. One relates to Sultangarhi Tomb and the yet to be documented historic water management structures. These fall in J-zone, including green belt, and rigorous landuse enforcement is perhaps all that is needed by way of an enabling framework for minimal essential protection interventions at the moment. Also necessary is to ensure that the zonal plan for J-zone adequately designates a building-control area around Sultangarhi Tomb as per the provisions of the Master Plan and that no development takes place in the vicinity till these building controls are in place. The other relates to Mahipalpur village and is clearly the one meriting urgent attention. Statutory provisions for renewal, integration, etc notwithstanding, no heritage protection intervention has been forthcoming in the village in the last four decades. Implementation distortions in the new planned development in the vicinity have, furthermore, created additional development pressures on it. As a consequence, much of the built and natural heritage has been or is being lost to rebuilding activity and encroachments. Not only does this represent a loss of city heritage, it is also a matter of infringement of citizens’ entitlements. It is obvious that heritage interventions at this stage pre-require substantial de-densification, which needs to have a priori claim on use of land in the vicinity. It is also obvious that detrimental impacts of surrounding development need to be checked, not exacerbated.

Recent interventions in the area seem to have no basis in the statutory Master Plan. No heritage or development interventions have been forthcoming in Mahipalpur, even though residents themselves have spared no effort to solicit the same. Restoration work and landscaping is underway on Sultangarhi Tomb on a largish scale, even though it is not clear how this merits priority since neither the Master Plan nor the Zonal Plan make any proposals for it. Rampant unauthorised development by way of party-places-pretending-to-be-farmhouses is destroying historic water management structures, even though DDA is sufficiently empowered to check this. And DDA itself has started a massive scheme for 2000 flats in the vicinity of Sultangarhi Tomb, even though the Zonal Plan for J-zone, envisaged among other things to define building control area around the monument, is yet to be prepared. DDA has admitted in court that its scheme is illegal. More importantly, it seems to jeopardise, besides developmental goals of the Plan and citizens’ entitlements under it, heritage goals as well. Apart from implications of building close to a protected monument without necessary controls being in place, the scheme is likely to exacerbate pressures that Vasant Kunj has already imposed on Mahipalpur. It also sits on land that might have been the only one acceptable to residents for de-densification needed for renewal of the village. Delhi Urban Arts Commission, however, seems to have approved it, or at least its aesthetics.

A key question posed by the circumstances currently obtaining in the area (outlined a bit more through a small selection of newspaper clippings below) relates to the ‘institutional framework’ for heritage and development interventions, specifically its failure to secure progressive (as opposed to piecemeal) heritage and development gains. It is noteworthy that Delhi Development Authority (custodian of the city’s development) and Archaeological Survey of India and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (custodians of its heritage) are working in the area in tandem. INTACH, furthermore, is working on heritage conservation as well as water conservation. Lately School of Planning and Architecture has also begun to take academic interest, institutionally as well as through individual student work, in the area. The Master Plan revision currently underway is also headquartered in the area and experts engaging on renewal aspects for it have a degree of association with it. Despite the ‘proximity’ of so many custodian institutions, it is left to the citizens to seek (unsuccessfully, one might add), say, implementation of heritage interventions for Mahipalpur or stoppage of illegal construction to the detriment of heritage imperatives in the area. Interventions being made by the ‘institutions’, on the other hand, are undeniably piecemeal. They may (or may not) be pretty or perfect pieces in their own right, but they do not necessarily fit the larger picture that is fast fading. The ‘disconnect’ between priorities of people and those of institutions is especially worrying because it is the custodian institutions that seem to be acting in an undisciplined manner. What is absolutely alarming is that their ‘justification’ has extended to a ‘dismissal’ of people. Thus DDA, in defense of its brazenly illegal scheme said in court that it would help save land from ‘encroachers’. And ‘conservationists and heritage lovers’ were reported to be spending sleepless nights about devotees ‘thronging’ to Sultangarhi Tomb (only once a week for decades), even as it was the devotees and not the heritage lovers who lost sleep and made sustained efforts against DDA’s massive scheme. The question really is whose heritage and development is it anyway. It is a rhetoric question, since the Constitution clearly answers it. It needs to be raised and discussed only to remind those who seem to have forgotten.


2001-05-20: ‘Sultangarhi Tomb adopted by the ASI’, Dipak Kumar Dash, Neighbourhood Flash
To promote this historical monument as a tourist spot, the ASI had laid a metal road nearly a year and a half ago connecting it to Mehrauli-Mahipalpur Road. In September last year, the ASI opened a ticket counter for sale of tickets to visitors to the spot. It also took up restoration work more seriously but though there was a move to bring water supply to the spot by boring a tube well, success eluded the authorities’ The ASI plans to develop parks around the tomb if only water could be made available and turn the monument into a tourist attraction’
Thursdays are when the monument throngs with people, those who have come to offer prayers to Veer Baba, some from as far off places as Chandni Chowk and Model Town. On other days there is hardly any human presence around except for a pair of ASI and may be a few villagers of Rangpuri Pahari who are in the habit of offering daily prayers at the Peer Baba’s shrine’
[NB: Boring of tube-wells is banned in the area by the Central Ground Water Authority’s directions]
2001-09-27: ‘DDA, Central Water Board take up conservation project’, Hindustan Times
Three recharge ponds are to be developed at the three big quarries near the tomb to recharge the ground water. Inaugurating the project, Union Minister of State for Water Resources, Bijoya Chakravarty stressed on the need to conserve fast depleting water resources. The DDA proposes to develop a park around the tomb.
2002-05-30: ‘No stopping DDA at VK’, Manan Kumar, Hindustan Times South Delhi Live
A labourer died at DDA’s new construction site for flats near Rangpuri Pahadi Basti in Vasant Kunj last Friday. Police said the prima facie cause of death was negligence on the part of the DDA contractor’
DDA has disregarded strong protests raised by groups like Samudayik Vikas Samiti of Rangpuri Pahadi and NGOs like Delhi Science Forum’
2002-06-13: ‘Water harvesting: Tuglaqs did, govt doesn’t’, Puja Birla, Express Newsline
When you see a 600-year-old water harvesting structure being encroached upon and used as a garbage dump, it is difficult to give any credibility to the Delhi government’s enthusiasm for water harvesting. More so, when the residents themselves want the old system to be revived, but all they receive are letters peppered with ”we-are-looking-into-the-matter” quotes from the government, you don’t know what to make of the latter’s intentions.
Mahipalpur village, at the southwest end of Vasant Kunj, is home to one of the oldest and most efficient water harvesting systems. Ferozshah Tuglaq, who was very interested in irrigation and understood the importance of water harvesting, had built a johar ’ catchment area like structure ’ complete with embankment walls. The originally 17-acre johar is only five acres today. Instead of being filled with water it has buildings, buffalo-sheds and the ubiquitous temple in its main catchment area. What is worse, the johar is completely dry.
DDA vice-chairman P.K. Hota assures if there is a water harvesting system already in place, ”we would certainly like to look into the case and improve the situation”.
”Early this year, we served notices to authorities, but nothing has been done to save the johar or the baandh. The two structures date back to the Tughlaq era. They may not be on the ASI list, but are historically important,” adds A.K. Sinha, in-charge, Delhi circle of the ASI.
2002-06-13: ‘DDA flouts norms, goes ahead with housing project’, The Statesman
The Delhi Development Authority is in a hurry to build 800 flats at Sultangarhi in Vasant Kunj. So much so that it has already begun preliminary work, without the concuurence of Delhi Jal Board. Neither has the land use been changed from agricultural to residential. That does not bother the DDA who started the construction with a ‘bhumi pujan’ [in a] small tent pitched in the middle of the project site, which was attended by senior zonal officials of DDA’
A lot of dirt has been kicked by the local people, with eleven non-governmental organisations of the residents of Rangpuri Pahari, Mahipalpur and Vasant Kunj complaining’ that the project was being developed in violation of the Master Plan’
The DDA commissioner (Planning), Mr Vijay Risbud, said the change in land use was under consideration. ‘It is with the ministry of urban development,’ said Mr Risbud. But when queired if construction can begin without change in land use, he refused to comment further. ‘Speak to the engineer member,’ he said. Despite repeated calls to the office and residence of DDA member engineer, Mr R K Bhandari, he was not available for comments’
Even senior Delhi Jal Board officials expressed their helpness in supplying any water to the new housing project at Sultangarhi, ‘We are in no position to supply filtered water to the area,’ said a senior DJB official. When queried as to the supply of water during construction period, he said, ‘They must have got sanction for digging tube wells.’ At the Central Ground Water Authority, a senior official stated categorically that permission to dig tube wells had not been given.
2002-06-27: ‘Rainwater to take care of VK woes’, Manan Kumar, Hindustan Times South Delhi Live
Having done her bit to stop construction of more flats in Vasant Kunj. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has now turned her attention to ensuring more water for the area. She has sanctioned Rs. 25 lakhs for rainwater harvesting projects that will meet almost half the area’s water needs once complete. The extensive project will involve Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) who will provide technical support’
She has already written to the LG asking him in his capacity as DDA chairman to specifically look into further construction of flats in Vasant Kunj as it might breach carrying capacity of the area.
But DDA has not stopped construction work in J zone, a notified rural and agricultural area in the Master Plan. It is also filling a natural depression near B-2 by felling trees. The purpose of rainwater harvesting will be defeated if such constructions are not stopped immediately’
2002-06-30: ‘DDA constructing buildings illegally’, Sreelatha Menon, Indian Express Sunday Newsline
Delhi may be parched for water but the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is busy snuffing out natural water recharge areas. It has cut 30 trees and has begun construction of housing complexes on a piece of land that is not meant for housing. This has been done without even getting the approval for change in land use from the Union Urban Development Ministry. The place, meant for agricultural use as per the Master Plan, is a lush plot near the ridge on the fringe of Vasant Kunj near the Sultangarhi Tomb. DDA has been on the site illegally since March, logging trees in two rounds in April, boring an illegal well in May and doing bhoomi poojan in June’
DDA Vice Chairman P.K.Hota brushed aside the fact that permission has not been received from the Urban Development Ministry on changing land use as given in the Master Plan. ‘we have asked for permission and the process is being completed’ he said. As for land being meant for agricultural use as per law, he said: ‘The whole city was for agricultural use at some point.’ Hota also defended the cutting of trees, ‘They have to be cut when necessary. But we would be doing compensatory afforestation,’ he said’