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A Capital Century

After 100 years as India’s capital, what forces are shaping the city’s development today?

By NAYANJOT LAHIRI | 1 January 2011

“We are pleased to announce to Our People that on the advice of Our Ministers , tendered after consultation with Our Governor-General-in-Council, We have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India, from Calcutta to the ancient Capital of Delhi…”

WITH THESE WORDS, King George V delivered a sensational surprise to his subjects in Delhi on 12 December 1911. The significance of the announcement was barely concealed by the pompous royalese in which it was phrased: from that moment, as the new political capital of India, Delhi would gradually displace Calcutta, which had been the nerve centre of the British Empire in Asia since the 18th century.

Over the course of the next 12 months, there will be many commemorations of the centenary of Delhi’s designation as India’s capital—and the monumental process it put into motion. But the significance of the initial decision is today largely taken for granted: many Dilliwallas are surprised to learn that the city has not always been the centre of political power in India.

When I asked friends and acquaintances when they thought Delhi had become India’s capital, one common response was that it had been so “from ancient times.” For many—as it had been for George V—the notion of Delhi as the perennial political capital of this region of the subcontinent is an old and abiding one: several people cited the Mahabharata myth about the capital of the Pandavas, Indraprastha, having been located at Purana Qila. Others pointed to the extraordinary monuments that have survived in Delhi—testimony to a long litany of medieval kings and emperors who made Delhi the capital of their empires—from the 11th century Lal Kot in Mehrauli to the still splendid Lal Qila and Jama Masjid of the time of Emperor Shah Jahan. Another common response was that Delhi had become the capital of India only on 15 August 1947, at the moment of independence; many people believe that the city assumed its political role only after the founding of the republic.

As we have seen from the heated debate over the Babri Masjid, perceptions of the past are often at variance with historical fact—and no less strongly held as a result. The danger in such thinking arises when a notion or idea about the past becomes so prominent that the real history fades from consciousness. My admittedly casual survey of knowledge about Delhi’s history suggests that a similar dynamic is at work today: the idea of the city as the capital—a place that embodies the nation or represents nationhood—rather than as a cultural centre or a living urban habitation with specific and distinguishing characteristics, is very strongly and perhaps detrimentally embedded in people’s minds. Narayani Gupta, a historian of Delhi, refers to this when she argues that “the national is crushing the city.” “Tilak Nagars and Nehru Roads proliferate,” she laments, while hardly anyone pays attention to the city’s historic culture, as enshrined in the poetry of Mir and the witticisms of Mizra Ghalib.

When I met Gupta to talk about the city, where she has lived most of her life, she posed her own question to me: could I point to any roads in Delhi named after Taqi Mir or Ghalib? There are none, of course—but there are two Vivekanand Margs.

Historians like Gupta—who has written about the saga of Delhi’s reconstruction as India’s capital after 1911—must experience a certain sense of deja vu when contemplating the fact that many today are surprised that their city’s role as India’s capital emerged not from antiquity or from the leaders of independent India, but from the King of England. That decision, after all, was an astonishing surprise to Dilliwallas at the time.

In the months prior to King George V’s astonishing announcement in December 1911, there were few clues that history was about to be made. A grand gathering of India’s British rulers, Indian princes, nobles, troops, and related panoplies of the powerful had been organised in Delhi to celebrate the coronation of the king, and to participate in an imperial assemblage proclaiming him the King-Emperor of India. Memorably described in Ahmed Ali’s classic novel Twilight in Delhi (1940), preparations for this durbar had been personally choreographed by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Some 84,000 Europeans and Indians were brought from different parts of India to 233 camps covering 40 square kilometres under 16 square kilometres of canvas. From the spring of 1911 onwards, around 20,000 people had been at work on these camps. Alongside, 64 kilometres of new roads were constructed; 80 kilometres of water mains and 48 kilometres of water pipes for the distribution of water in the camps were laid; farms with herds of cows and dairies, as also markets for meat and vegetables, were set up. Clearly, the guests who gathered in Delhi were adequately housed, fed and watered.

Delhi was used to such gatherings. In 1877 a similar durbar had been witness to a proclamation that Queen Victoria was Empress of India. Again, in 1903 a durbar in Delhi celebrated the coronation of Edward VII as Emperor of India. Unique, though, was the presence in the third British Imperial Assemblage of 1911 of the subject of the proclamation: George V showed up in person with his Queen Mary dutifully in tow. Their appearance added a new and altogether different aura to this Coronation darbar.

The royal couple arrived in Delhi on 7 December on an imperial train from Bombay, making their state entry in a procession that lasted for some five hours. Just as ‘undesirable elements’—the Indian babuism for the poor and the unkempt—are removed from sight before sensitive events like the Commonwealth Games, some 300 ‘dangerous characters’ were arrested and remained in prison until the king left Delhi. Large contingents of police were posted at sensitive spots along the processional path. At Chandni Chowk, where their highnesses and their retinue passed almost under the windows of the houses of a curious and perhaps bemused citizenry, a police officer was posted at every window and nobody was allowed entry into or egress from their house after 6:00 am.

The durbar itself was held five days later in a purpose-built amphitheatre in northwest Delhi, with seating for 4,000 special guests. Also in attendance were 35,000 troops and 70,000 spectators, who watched this human circus from a huge semi-circular mound. Suresh Kalmadi could have been drawing inspiration from this durbar, for the last few nails were being driven into the red carpet only a couple of minutes before the Viceroy’s escort rode up. Not that anyone noticed in the flourish of trumpets and drums that followed. The durbar proceedings involved much kneeling as well as the customary bowing and scraping before the king, including the kissing of ‘His Majesty’s’ hand—by Hardinge and the members of his Council, by the Indian chiefs and princes, and by many others.

At the last stage of the durbar, the king sprang a surprise on his audience. As Hardinge finished announcing the boons conferred in commemoration of the accession of George V, he handed over a document to the king. Standing before his principal durbaris, the king read aloud a carefully prepared statement announcing the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the reunion of Eastern and Western Bengal and other administrative changes.

The announcement was greeted by “a deep silence of profound surprise” among the unsuspecting listeners, Hardinge writes, followed by wild cheering a few seconds later. Such surprise was natural. Notwithstanding its hoary past, at the time that this unsought-for elevation was thrust upon Delhi, it was a provincial city of modest dimensions. Unlike the discontented Bengalis—who began resisting the partition of Bengal from 1903 (when it was announced by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon) and had been fighting ever since for its revocation—Dilliwalas had neither asked nor agitated for any such status. Above all, George V’s announcement astonished everyone because it had remained a closely guarded secret.

The decision that the transfer announcement would be an important gift for the king to carry with him to India had been formalised as long as six months earlier. It was known only to a dozen people in India and about the same number in England. Even the gazettes and news-sheets carrying the proclamation, and distributed simultaneously with the king’s announcement, had been printed in the utmost secrecy. Much like India’s annual budget exercise nowadays, a press camp had been organised in Delhi where living accommodation, along with printing machines, was provided for secretaries, printers and their servants. Officials were placed in this camp three days before the durbar, with a cordon of troops and police ensuring that nothing could go in or out until the actual moment of the durbar. So Hardinge was justified in describing the announcement of the transfer of the capital to Delhi as one of the best-kept secrets in history.

CONVERTING DELHI INTO INDIA’S new imperial capital was far more challenging, and retrospectively, far less successful. That has a great deal to do with the fact that the priority of the colonial political class was to provide an urban form to their imperial vision rather than create a capital around the historic identity of Delhi and its requirements. Similarly, as will be soon be evident to the reader, some epochal moments in the transformation of post-independence Delhi would also be shaped by the motives of India’s political class—in the guise of national needs and, as with the Commonwealth Games, international aspirations—rather than the character and the problems of the city.

To begin with, building the new city took some 20 years: and this was in spite of the fact that the decision to build a ‘new Delhi’ was taken simultaneously with the decision to transfer the capital. The royal couple had laid the foundation stones of that new capital with great ceremony within the precincts of the durbar camp. Hardinge had also moved quickly. By the end of March 1912 he departed from Calcutta with all the paraphernalia of the viceregal court. Soon, he was supervising the building of temporary quarters for the government offices in Delhi and choosing the site where the city would be located.

Several locations were considered and rejected. The durbar area was declared uninteresting and unhealthy and also liable to flooding. Sabzi Mandi was better, but acquisition of the factory areas would annoy mill-owners. Civil Lines, similarly, would antagonise the European population, which would have to be evicted. For reasons of health, for its undulating land, for the space it provided, and for its relationship with many historic sites, the Raisina village area and hill were what appealed to the Viceroy: “From the top of the hill there was a magnificent view embracing old Delhi and all of the principal monuments situated outside the town, with the River at a little distance. I said at once… ‘This is the site for Government House.’” With the construction of Government House, though, large segments of the magnificent Raisina hill would have to be blasted away.

By 1912 the new city’s architects had been commissioned. Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944), with his old friend Herbert Baker (1862-1946), as his collaborator, had been given the job. The choice of Lutyens in 1912 for designing India’s new capital could not have been based on his track record. Public buildings and city architecture, far from being his forte, were on the contrary the sorts of edifice with which he had nearly no connection. His chief claim to fame came from designing unusual and sometimes eccentric English country homes for businessmen, politicians and ‘lords.’ These fancy farmhouses of the British aristocracy had names like ‘Folly Farm’ (in Sulhamstead) and ‘The Pleasaunce’ (in Norfolk). What Lutyens lacked in terms of experience, he made up for with his connections. For one, it is unlikely to have been a disadvantage for him to have been married to Emily Lytton, the only daughter of the viceroy, Lord Lytton, who had presided over Queen Victoria’s 1877 durbar in Delhi. For another, Lutyens’ great friend and collaborator was the well-connected and gifted garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

In this imperial project, a high wall separated the British designers of New Delhi from Indian master-builders and craftsmen. These craftsmen were inheritors of an unbroken subcontinental building tradition of a couple of thousand years, but the Delhi designers did not think it was necessary to integrate their skills into the capital project. This appalled many influential Britishers and Indians. Several of them actually petitioned the Secretary of State for India in 1913 to the effect that ‘native’ architecture would suffer if it was to take its inspiration from abroad:

“…the question to be discussed is, not in what style, but by what method the new city should be built; whether that of the modern architect in an office with his assistants, detached from materials, craftsmen, and site, carrying his buildings to completion upon paper, with pencil-trained mind and hands….or, the method that has given us Westminster Abbey, Saint Sofia, Saint Peter’s (Rome), and in India the Taj, the Palaces of Akbar and Shah Jahan, and the great public works of former times, that of the master-builder with his craftsmen, working in accustomed materials upon the site from simple instructions as to accommodation and arrangement such as would have been given to a master-mason or a master-carpenter by a medieval King who required a palace or a castle, or by a Bishop who desired to found a cathedral.”

Indian elements and motifs came to be used by Lutyens and Baker, drawing inspiration from Buddhist religious complexes on the one hand, and Mughal buildings on the other. But, the overwhelming aesthetic deployed was that of imperial architecture, capturing the spirit of British imperialism. And it was not done by the methods by which earlier such Indian buildings had been made. The Indians who built Delhi, in fact, were not the traditional master-builders but modern contractors. Some of them had come to Delhi at the time of the 1911 durbar. Sujan Singh and his elder son, Sobha Singh, were one such family from Sargodha: they had won the contract to level the land for the 1911 -Delhi durbar. There was no looking back thereafter and Sobha Singh went on to construct some of the most prominent buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi, including South Block, the All-India Memorial (India Gate), and the forecourt of Viceregal House (Rashtrapati Bhavan).

Lutyens, on his part, designed Viceregal House not within the framework of domestic architecture but in terms of imperial ideals. Larger than the Palace of Versailles, its 340 rooms, 227 columns and 2.4 kilometres of corridors stood in an estate of 330 acres. The big problem, however, was that the view of this magnificent Viceregal palace was blocked by Baker’s secretariat buildings. Lutyens had originally intended to build it on the brow of Raisina hill, dominating the plain to the distant Yamuna river. But the government preferred the secretariats to stand on the same level and, apparently to please Baker, Lutyens agreed to place the Viceroy’s house at the western end of the hill. The condition, though, was that the road leading to it between the twin government offices should be so gently sloped that Viceregal House would be visible from the ‘Great Place’ (now Vijay Chowk) from where the road ascended. However, the gradient ensured, as one commentator put it, that the secretariats appeared as a pair of round kiosks and between them, Viceregal House was only a pale distant button of a dome and half an obelisk. It is not as if Baker always got his way. The Council House, for instance, had been designed by him in the first plan as an equilateral triangle whose three sides were linked to a dome that would filter light. Lutyens felt it jarred as an important part of the larger architectural scheme and argued for a circular colosseum design. And that is why Delhi has a circular Parliament House.

But these battles, fought between foul-tempered men with massive egos, were confined to the New Delhi that was being built. Other kinds of battles were being fought elsewhere, as some Indians struggled to provide the city with institutions that behoved a political capital. Creating a university in Delhi became one such battleground.
While the declaration which made Delhi India’s imperial capital contained within it the seeds of the formation of a university, the British were not keen to give it life. Even after a decade of that declaration, the British members of Viceroy Reading’s Council threw cold water on the proposal. The Finance Member, Sir Malcolm Hailey, actually remarked that India “had too many universities which are unable to finance themselves or get financed.” It was an Indian member of the Council, Muhammad Shafi, who pointed out that whereas England’s 18 universities serviced 50 million people, for the education needs of the 30 million population of Punjab, Northwest Frontier and Delhi there was only the Lahore-based University of the Punjab. As he put it, it would be “a standing reproach against a Central Government that in the one province which is still under their direct charge and where they have their own winter home, they have not yet established the university which was an integral part of the original scheme of transfer of India’s capital to Delhi.” Eventually, the Viceroy went along with Shafi and other Indian members. This resulted, finally, in the creation of the University of Delhi in 1922. The penny-pinchers, though, succeeded in ensuring that it began its existence with a pauper’s purse of 40,000 rupees. This was surprisingly stingy since, around the same time, the government was spending large sums of money on building ostentatious structures for itself in Delhi.

The structures that Lutyens and Baker were building barely mattered to those who lived in the part of Delhi through which George V had passed on his way to the durbar camp. And this raises the other major problem with the way our British rulers conceived of their new capital. Those who had designed it couldn’t have done a better job of treating the rest of Delhi as if it was an irrelevance. For one, the villagers of Raisina were banished across Barapullah Nullah to Bhogal, now a thriving service area. Unlike the broad avenues and big bungalows being built in New Delhi, the resettlement colony of Bhogal was laid out along traditional caste lines. For another, Old Delhi was ignored. The 130-odd million rupees that were spent on making the capital city, apart from the visual gesture that linked the Council House and Jama Masjid, did not involve a scheme for integrating Old Delhi with New Delhi, and despite a mass of suggestions for improving conditions in the older city, no definite policy emerged. Shahjahanabad, where Bahadur Shah II had accepted the nominal leadership of the 1857 revolt, and whose devaluation had begun in right earnest in the aftermath of its suppression—when parts of it were destroyed and plundered—was now relegated to being treated like a large dirty slum of overcrowded buildings. Stephen Legg’s representation of the difference between New and Old Delhi strikingly sums this up. The difference, he says in his work on imperial Delhi, was “between health and disease, order and disorder, boulevards and galis, white and brown.”

Many within British government circles thought such priorities absurd, where building the new capital was being pursued at the cost of everything else in Delhi. One of these was John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and a member of the larger team overseeing the project. He was convinced that the “monstrously pretentious structures” being planned for imperial Delhi were ones that no one in India wanted or cared for, while, as he pointed out, even though the “ancient mosques and palaces of Delhi may seem a slight thing compared with the vast structures that are being reared at their side,” they had a message and a meaning for Indians which “our own creations, costly and pretentious as they are, will never have and the government would be wise to pay more not less regard to the sentiment attaching to them.”

Marshall’s rhetorical shrewdness in holding up a mirror to his own government which had turned a Nelson’s eye to the living core of historic Delhi, is no doubt related to the frequent financial cutbacks that the ASI faced, which in turn adversely impacted the conservation of Delhi’s monuments and historic gardens. But the call to pay heed to Indian sentiment was also founded on the large-scale disorders in India in the wake of the all-India movement launched by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

The irony of the timing of the inauguration of New Delhi’s big buildings, when the continuance of the British Raj was being fiercely resisted by nationalists, could not have been lost on the government. Take the case of the Council House, which was opened in 1927. Within a couple of years, a most sensational protest took place inside it. On 8 April 1929, two militant nationalists, Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt, sneaked in unnoticed and hurled bombs from the public gallery of the Central Legislative Assembly (where the Lok Sabha now sits). This dramatically highlighted Indian resistance to two bills—the Public Safety bill, which would empower the government to detain anyone without trial, and the Trade Disputes bill, meant to deter labour unions from organising strikes—which were scheduled for discussion on that day. While the bombs themselves were of low intensity and did not seriously injure people, the incongruity of the spectacle must have struck many in the overflowing visitors’ gallery that day. Here, in the newly-created heart of England’s Indian empire, one that was built on a scale which sought to showcase political permanence, the treasury benches of the great imperial Legislative Assembly had been attacked and showered with leaflets bearing the immortal line of the French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear.”

SOME 18 YEARS LATER the same Legislative Assembly saw the end of British rule. ‘Independence Day’ dawned on 15 August 1947 but the celebrations started on 14 August. These began in the Assembly hall, when the Constituent Assembly of India, made up of Indians who were drafting a constitution for the new nation, held a special session that started at 11 pm. The star speaker that night was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whose words imparted a strong sense of occasion. “At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps,” Nehru announced, “India will awake to life and freedom.” As members of the Assembly listened to the chimes which announced the midnight hour, one of them blew a conch shell to announce the great event. Thousands crowded around the entrance to the Council building that night while shopping centres, public buildings, temples and homes all over Delhi were decorated with lights and with the national flag.

Independence, tragically, also saw an unprecedented bloodbath. As a united India was partitioned, Delhi became the site of a particularly vicious campaign in which Muslims were butchered in their thousands. Many others moved to camps for safety and, eventually, to Pakistan, even as an estimated half a million Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, especially Punjab, poured into the city. This literally transformed Delhi into a ‘refugeeistan.’ Initially, it was Muslims seeking a safe haven who occupied such places as the Jama Masjid area, Nizamuddin and Okhla, graveyards and abandoned Muslim monuments, the houses of cabinet ministers, the Pakistani High Commission, and the huge refugee camps that were set up in Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. Later, tens of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees took shelter in such camps, which continued to exist for several years after Partition. The difficulties of dealing with refugees has been described in a memoir by Dharma Vira who handled the Refugee Section in Prime Minister Nehru’s office. “It all seems unimaginable now,” he tells us:

 but we who have been through these times cannot forget  the amount of suffering these refugees had gone through—their distress and privations. Somebody’s daughter snatched away; another person’s wife dishonoured; their property gone; most of them living an uprooted life; and not knowing what was going to happen the next day. It was not easy to deal with these people. Nevertheless, the job had to be done. They had to be looked after and rehabilitated.

Eventually, as emergency projects, 36 rehabilitation colonies for refugees were created. Rajendra Nagar, Patel Nagar and Lajpat Nagar are among the largest of those colonies, and as the historian Ramachandra Guha notes, “they are named after Congress Hindus who were not as pro-Muslim as Gandhi and Nehru were thought to be!”

Occupationally, since most refugees in Delhi came from the urban areas of West Pakistan, they moved towards trade and commerce. In many parts of Delhi, shops and businesses were taken over by such refugees. About 90 percent of the shops in Chandni Chowk’s Cloth Market, for example, originally belonged to the old residents of Delhi but over time Punjabi refugees took over the bulk of the business, with a mere 10 percent eventually remaining in the control of the old merchants. The retail and general merchandise shops under the incredibly hardworking and pushy Punjabi refugees, in fact, became the primary reason why Delhi, post-independence, became a big retail market city.

While the dynamism and drive with which refugees rebuilt their lives and the alacrity with which the government rehabilitated them, make for a deeply moving story, it also hastened haphazard urban growth. By the 1950s, this alarmed many in the city—among them Prime Minister Nehru. Unlike recent prime ministers, Nehru took a keen interest in Delhi. His Selected Works contain all kinds of nuggets that highlight this—from his annoyance at the rising estimates for the construction of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (“I suppose if we wait a little longer, the CPWD will revise their last estimate and add a few crores to it”) to the way in which the National Museum jutted out of line with the other buildings (“I hope no other building would be constructed which encroaches on the open space of the vista”). There are also extensive comments on the ways in which Delhi’s ‘fair’ face was being blemished by unplanned growth. As Nehru put it, “Delhi will be spoilt completely if there is no overall planning of the city and we do not stop odd structures going up without paying attention to larger considerations of planning, health, sanitation, keeping of open places and the future growth of the city.” Profiteering and speculation around land in Delhi during the 1950s was rife, involving all kinds of people, including senior government officials. Nehru’s concern about such speculation is captured in this letter which he wrote on 26 July 1956 to Swaran Singh, then Minister for Works, Housing and Supply:

I am informed that all the land on Ring Road from Vinay Nagar to Medical Enclave on both sides of the road has been bought up by the Chairman of the Delhi Improvement Trust, Dr. Gopi Chand Bhargava, K.P.S. Menon, Datar Singh, Sanwal, Shankar Prasad and a number of other senior officers of the Central Government as well as some businessmen. The land was originally bought about a year or two ago, it is stated, for four annas to a rupee per square yard. It is now being sold in small lots at eight rupees per square yard. This does seem to me rather extravagant profit.

What is specially to be noted is that senior officers of government are involved in this business. Of all the persons, surely the Chairman of the Delhi Improvement Trust should not make money in this way.

So, much as in 1911 the Viceroy had taken the initiative to change the face of Delhi, it was the Prime Minister of India who in the 1950s became the moving force behind the idea that the city should be managed and planned through a government-propelled Master Plan.

In 1957, institutions which Delhiites today associate with the planning, upkeep and problems of their city were created. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) were set up that year, with the DDA’s objective being “to promote and secure the development of Delhi according to Plan.” Work on the Master Plan for Delhi began even before this and was prepared by a team of Indian planners assisted by consultants from the Ford Foundation.

The senior architect and town planner, Kuldip Singh, remembers interning in the summer of 1955 with the Town Planning Organisation, the institutional umbrella under which the Indian planners who prepared the plan, worked. I sought out Kuldip Singh, now 76 years old, to speak about his perspective on the Master Plan, whose methodology and standards later became benchmarks for planning cities all over India. Having spent more than half a century studying and designing buildings in India, his description of the post-independence political leaders who have sought to protect the character of Delhi is straightforward and blunt. Three prime ministers of India took a keen interest in the planning of Delhi. Nehru would always be remembered, he says, for initiating the Master Plan of Delhi; Indira Gandhi for the establishment of key institutions that went on to play an important role in servicing and regulating the city—the Housing Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) in 1970 for dealing with problems of housing for the economically weaker sections, for the founding of the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) in 1974, and for intervening to replan the Connaught Place extension of New Delhi in 1972; and Rajiv Gandhi for ensuring that the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation’s (DMRC) rails remained underground across Lutyens’ Delhi. Kuldip Singh remembers a meeting of architects and urban planners chaired by Rajiv Gandhi where the DUAC’s Perspective Plan 2000 for Delhi was being discussed, in which he shot down in no uncertain terms a DDA-inspired plan for an elevated rail track across Lutyens’ Delhi.

The Nehru-driven Master Plan functionally zoned land uses, with the city being divided into a number of planning divisions, each of these being visualised as self-contained in the matter of employment, residential places, recreational areas, shopping and other requirements. Commercial activity was decentralised, and consequently, various district shopping centres were proposed so as to be within easy reach of each district. These were to be composite centres with shopping, business, commercial and professional offices, local government offices, cinemas, restaurants and other places of entertainment. Singh was at pains to also point out that, for the first time, “thanks to the Master Plan large open areas came to be demarcated around monuments so that they could be better preserved.” Delhi’s urbanisable land, as visualised until 1981, was to be surrounded by a green belt of agricultural land to limit the city’s physical growth and to prevent it merging with the cities nearby.

The government, along with the plan, also set in place what was arguably the largest land nationalisation in Indian urban history, where the DDA was empowered to acquire a projected area of 35,000 acres for housing through the Land Acquisition Act. This land would be sold by the DDA after comprehensive planning, and the surplus ploughed into public infrastructure. The image of the state as the sovereign owner of Delhi’s land, which it had acquired for public purpose is based on this single initiative. Above all, as the Master Plan assumed statutory shape in 1962, it facilitated the preparation of Master Plans for all the major cities of India. Therefore, as Kuldip Singh puts it, the present state of our cities, for better or for worse, bears the unmistakable stamp of this single, far-reaching decision.

Singh is also quick to point out the deficiencies of that plan. A large part of Delhi continued to grow unplanned, notwithstanding all the safeguards, with hundreds of thousands of urban working poor living in illegal squatter colonies in the city. In the ‘Emergency’ years, from 1975 to 1977, it was such groups who were forcibly moved into resettlement colonies. This was part of the programme of Sanjay Gandhi, the powerful son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and following his focus on removing slums, Delhi’s poor were removed by the administration to the peripheries of the city. Each family was entitled to some 25 square yards, with about 60,000 such plots being demarcated. Ironically, the administrative machinery, then as now, failed to demolish the illegal colonies of the rich. Sainik Farms, which was set up as a defence services cooperative in the 1960s, is an example of this. Rather than farms, it is home to sprawling mansions that were built after agricultural tracts were bought by the rich and by politicians and converted into residences.

The planning process continues in much the same way, in the sense that subsequent Master Plans too have failed to provide adequate authorised housing for millions of Delhi’s citizens, even as rich illegal colonies like Sainik Farms are on the brink of being granted legal status. A senior official of the Urban Development Ministry notes that today in Delhi, three to four million people lived in unauthorised colonies, about the same number in slums, some one million in recently created ‘resettlement’ colonies where no planning regulations seem to have been followed, and two million or so in rural and urban villages which, by law, are exempt from the planning process.

Equally imperfect was the plan’s approach to transport. What the First Master Plan had visualised, Singh says, was essentially private-vehicle-ownership based: be it a cycle, a two-wheeler or a car. No specific scheme was formulated for mass transit facilities. The subsequent growth in population of the city “from the forecast of 5.4 million in 1981 to 8.25 million in the year 2001 and now 22 to 23 million in the year 2021 has led to jam packed roads, overflowing car parks, painfully high accident rate, all pervasive noise pollution, and numerous incidents of murderous road rage.” It was with the idea of overcoming this deficiency that the DMRC was formed under a statute in 1995. The first stretch of the rail system was completed in 2002, well ahead of schedule, and, because of the advantages to the travelling public, it has since been hailed in Singh’s description “as the torch bearer of a resurgent India determined to shed its image of project bunglers!”

What the Metro also did was to deface the surrounding cityscape in a way that would have made Nehru furious. For one, this 400-billion-rupee undertaking, with some 415-kilometre length of rail track all over Delhi is by far the longest elevated rail track system in any city in the world. Its elevated character has ensured that the central medians on the arterial roads of Nehru’s Master Plan now have huge monsters of concrete. For another, the project is detached from the Master Plan. Since 2006, Singh and some 500 registered architects and 60 town planners have been tenaciously highlighting this. Their petition to the Prime Minister in November 2006 noted that “the logic of urban planning has been turned on its head. Instead of fitting a transport system into a well organised land use framework, land-uses are now arbitrarily altered to chase a transport system.” The petition resonates with my own experience as a member of the DUAC, a body which frequently examines DMRC projects that are required by Parliament to be conceptually approved by it. Making a mockery of the DUAC Act, most stations that come for approval are already more than half-built when sent for ‘sanction.’ Delhi Metro projects, unlike similar schemes in other parts of the world, are also exempt from environmental evaluation.

But India’s rulers have grown insensitive to the aesthetics and other needs of the city. Nothing appears to have come out of the petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which, as some cynics would say, is only to be expected from a government that is more concerned about enhancing India’s international image and its growth rate than with the absence of city planning or the degradation of Delhi’s historic environment. A little over a year ago, the Delhi High Court had dramatically highlighted this when it pointed out the manner in which protected monuments in Delhi were compromised. The elevated road on Barapullah Nullah, for example, which connects the Commonwealth Games Village with the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, runs just five metres from the Jahangir period Bara Pulah bridge and about 105 metres from Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana’s tomb. KT Ravindran, a senior urban planner who serves as Chairman of the DUAC, had pointed out to the ASI that the road would endanger the Bara Pula bridge, and advised the government to consider another route. The ASI not only ignored the suggestion, it gave the green light to an elevated road which, for the two-week Commonwealth tamasha, permanently compromised a nearly 400-year-old bridge.

And so, as 2011 begins, will Dilliwallas continue to experience the open spaces and planned development that have famously enhanced the visual appeal of their city? Or will they primarily experience their city in the form of elevated roads and railway tracks outside their homes? Without political will intervening to restore sanity to planning in India’s political capital, Kuldip Singh’s words of caution may well turn out to be true: “Known as a ‘City of Monuments’, Delhi in the future could well be called the city of ‘Serpentine Concrete.’ “

“We are pleased to announce to Our People that on the advice of Our Ministers , tendered after consultation with Our Governor-General-in-Council, We have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India, from Calcutta to the ancient Capital of Delhi…”

WITH THESE WORDS, King George V delivered a sensational surprise to his subjects in Delhi on 12 December 1911. The significance of the announcement was barely concealed by the pompous royalese in which it was phrased: from that moment, as the new political capital of India, Delhi would gradually displace Calcutta, which had been the nerve centre of the British Empire in Asia since the 18th century.

Over the course of the next 12 months, there will be many commemorations of the centenary of Delhi’s designation as India’s capital—and the monumental process it put into motion. But the significance of the initial decision is today largely taken for granted: many Dilliwallas are surprised to learn that the city has not always been the centre of political power in India.

When I asked friends and acquaintances when they thought Delhi had become India’s capital, one common response was that it had been so “from ancient times.” For many—as it had been for George V—the notion of Delhi as the perennial political capital of this region of the subcontinent is an old and abiding one: several people cited the Mahabharata myth about the capital of the Pandavas, Indraprastha, having been located at Purana Qila. Others pointed to the extraordinary monuments that have survived in Delhi—testimony to a long litany of medieval kings and emperors who made Delhi the capital of their empires—from the 11th century Lal Kot in Mehrauli to the still splendid Lal Qila and Jama Masjid of the time of Emperor Shah Jahan. Another common response was that Delhi had become the capital of India only on 15 August 1947, at the moment of independence; many people believe that the city assumed its political role only after the founding of the republic.

As we have seen from the heated debate over the Babri Masjid, perceptions of the past are often at variance with historical fact—and no less strongly held as a result. The danger in such thinking arises when a notion or idea about the past becomes so prominent that the real history fades from consciousness. My admittedly casual survey of knowledge about Delhi’s history suggests that a similar dynamic is at work today: the idea of the city as the capital—a place that embodies the nation or represents nationhood—rather than as a cultural centre or a living urban habitation with specific and distinguishing characteristics, is very strongly and perhaps detrimentally embedded in people’s minds. Narayani Gupta, a historian of Delhi, refers to this when she argues that “the national is crushing the city.” “Tilak Nagars and Nehru Roads proliferate,” she laments, while hardly anyone pays attention to the city’s historic culture, as enshrined in the poetry of Mir and the witticisms of Mizra Ghalib.

When I met Gupta to talk about the city, where she has lived most of her life, she posed her own question to me: could I point to any roads in Delhi named after Taqi Mir or Ghalib? There are none, of course—but there are two Vivekanand Margs.

Historians like Gupta—who has written about the saga of Delhi’s reconstruction as India’s capital after 1911—must experience a certain sense of deja vu when contemplating the fact that many today are surprised that their city’s role as India’s capital emerged not from antiquity or from the leaders of independent India, but from the King of England. That decision, after all, was an astonishing surprise to Dilliwallas at the time.

In the months prior to King George V’s astonishing announcement in December 1911, there were few clues that history was about to be made. A grand gathering of India’s British rulers, Indian princes, nobles, troops, and related panoplies of the powerful had been organised in Delhi to celebrate the coronation of the king, and to participate in an imperial assemblage proclaiming him the King-Emperor of India. Memorably described in Ahmed Ali’s classic novel Twilight in Delhi (1940), preparations for this durbar had been personally choreographed by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Some 84,000 Europeans and Indians were brought from different parts of India to 233 camps covering 40 square kilometres under 16 square kilometres of canvas. From the spring of 1911 onwards, around 20,000 people had been at work on these camps. Alongside, 64 kilometres of new roads were constructed; 80 kilometres of water mains and 48 kilometres of water pipes for the distribution of water in the camps were laid; farms with herds of cows and dairies, as also markets for meat and vegetables, were set up. Clearly, the guests who gathered in Delhi were adequately housed, fed and watered.

Delhi was used to such gatherings. In 1877 a similar durbar had been witness to a proclamation that Queen Victoria was Empress of India. Again, in 1903 a durbar in Delhi celebrated the coronation of Edward VII as Emperor of India. Unique, though, was the presence in the third British Imperial Assemblage of 1911 of the subject of the proclamation: George V showed up in person with his Queen Mary dutifully in tow. Their appearance added a new and altogether different aura to this Coronation darbar.

The royal couple arrived in Delhi on 7 December on an imperial train from Bombay, making their state entry in a procession that lasted for some five hours. Just as ‘undesirable elements’—the Indian babuism for the poor and the unkempt—are removed from sight before sensitive events like the Commonwealth Games, some 300 ‘dangerous characters’ were arrested and remained in prison until the king left Delhi. Large contingents of police were posted at sensitive spots along the processional path. At Chandni Chowk, where their highnesses and their retinue passed almost under the windows of the houses of a curious and perhaps bemused citizenry, a police officer was posted at every window and nobody was allowed entry into or egress from their house after 6:00 am.

The durbar itself was held five days later in a purpose-built amphitheatre in northwest Delhi, with seating for 4,000 special guests. Also in attendance were 35,000 troops and 70,000 spectators, who watched this human circus from a huge semi-circular mound. Suresh Kalmadi could have been drawing inspiration from this durbar, for the last few nails were being driven into the red carpet only a couple of minutes before the Viceroy’s escort rode up. Not that anyone noticed in the flourish of trumpets and drums that followed. The durbar proceedings involved much kneeling as well as the customary bowing and scraping before the king, including the kissing of ‘His Majesty’s’ hand—by Hardinge and the members of his Council, by the Indian chiefs and princes, and by many others.

At the last stage of the durbar, the king sprang a surprise on his audience. As Hardinge finished announcing the boons conferred in commemoration of the accession of George V, he handed over a document to the king. Standing before his principal durbaris, the king read aloud a carefully prepared statement announcing the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the reunion of Eastern and Western Bengal and other administrative changes.

The announcement was greeted by “a deep silence of profound surprise” among the unsuspecting listeners, Hardinge writes, followed by wild cheering a few seconds later. Such surprise was natural. Notwithstanding its hoary past, at the time that this unsought-for elevation was thrust upon Delhi, it was a provincial city of modest dimensions. Unlike the discontented Bengalis—who began resisting the partition of Bengal from 1903 (when it was announced by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon) and had been fighting ever since for its revocation—Dilliwalas had neither asked nor agitated for any such status. Above all, George V’s announcement astonished everyone because it had remained a closely guarded secret.

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Nayanjot Lahiri is a professor of history at Ashoka University. She is the author of several books, including Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization Was Discovered (2005), Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories (2012) and Ashoka in Ancient India (2015).

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