Barapullah In The News

An image of Barapullah I took sometime in 2009, showing its basic design and construction (and the ganda nala – dirty drain – flowing under it)

Barapullah is an early 17th century bridge close to Humayun’s Tomb and Khan Khana’s Tomb in the Nizamuddin area. The monument has been in the news recently as part of the ongoing tussle between the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) in Delhi on one side, and various other governmental bodies (such as the railways, Delhi metro, MCD, Commonwealth Games people etc) on the other, playing out an intra-government-department preservation-versus-development urban slug-fest. This fight has been brought to a head by the ongoing rush of infrastructural projects in Delhi in general, and Commonwealth Games related projects in particular.

As Delhi scrambles to complete these infrastructure projects before the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, the ASI is attempting to block those projects that come too close to the monuments under its protection (apparently no construction within 100 meters of a protected monument is allowed – a rule that obviously hasn’t been followed too strictly for the past five decades since it’s been in place).

The Barapullah Nala (drain/rivulet), which the Barapullah bridge spans at Nizamuddin and which snakes through part of south Delhi, is being used as a path for an elevated road that will connect the Ring Road near Serai Kale Khan with Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and is intended to ease traffic flow between the stadium and the Commonwealth Games Village on the east bank of the Yamuna. Some of the pillars being erected for this elevated road are just about 10 meters away from Barapullah.

So the Barapullah example is being publicized in the media as the most egregious case of flouting the “no construction around monuments” rule. While this is definitely the case, I just wanted to bring to light the existing state of the Barapullah monument, current elevated road construction notwithstanding. Newspaper reports give the impression that Barapullah was a well-preserved monument, or at least a somewhat-preserved one, whose protected space is only now being violated by the elevated bridge construction. In reality Barapullah has been anything but well protected over the past decades. In fact, Barapullah is a unique example that indicates all that is wrong with the preservation process.

The first problem of course is that the nala which flows under the bridge has been an open sewer for a long time. However, what makes the current concern over the new elevated road construction so ironic is that a concrete bridge, parallel to Barapullah, has existed about 3 meters away from Barapullah for at least a couple of decades. I have a vague memory of using Barapullah itself as a thoroughfare road to cross over from Jangpura to Nizamuddin as a kid, but the parallel concrete bridge has existed for all my adult life. This parallel bridge is now used for heavy throughfare (it leads to the close-by Nizamuddin railway station and in fact a blue-line bus route terminates here), and Barapullah itself is the site for a makeshift daily market. The parallel bridge was probably constructed to divert vehicular traffic from Barapullah, but surely it needn’t have been built just 3 meters away from it.

The approach to Barapullah, on which a makeshift market is now set up daily. This and all following images were taken on Jan 25, 2010

The decades old concrete bridge running parallel to Barapullah is visible behind the small turrets of Barapullah, and is just a few feet away from it

The images below clearly shows the proximity between the original Barapullah and the parallel concrete bridge. We can also see the sewage and garbage accumulated at the foot of Barapullah, as well as the high-tension electricity pylon built very close to Barapullah. The columns under construction in the central middle-distance are for the proposed elevated road. The main north-south line of the Indian railways passes close to Barapullah as well. All in all, not a very picturesque locale, to say the least, and with all kinds of preservation-law violations all around.

Parallel concrete bridge and Barapullah

Barapullah from the parallel bridge

Vendors on Barapullah with the under-construction elevated road’s columns behind

I would estimate the closest column of the elevated road to be about 10 meters from Barapullah, while the existing parallel bridge is about 3 meters distant from Barapullah

Elevated road construction with Barapullah behind

A panoramic view of Barapullah, its parallel bridge and the elevated road construction. In the background on the right we can see the base of the roadway itself being set up over the completed columns. On the left, through the steel-mesh fencing, is visible the other side of the elevated road construction. Click to enlarge

The elevated road construction approaching Barapullah. The main north-south line of the Indian railways lies in front of it. This view is looking eastwards towards the Yamuna from Barapullah

Here are a couple of images of construction on the other side … looking westwards, taken from the parallel bridge. The dome of Khan Khana’s Tomb is visible in the background.

What does all this tell us?

As we can see, the setting of Barapullah is a real mess. It has a heavily trafficked parallel bridge mere feet away from it, a large electricity pylon close by, an open sewer passing under it, a major national railway line passing close by, and is used as a makeshift market space. It has no protected area around it, and is surrounded by garbage and dirt. The elevated road being constructed over it, with its columns a few meters away from Barapullah, will not so much ruin the setting of Barapullah as add to the misfortunes of the monument.

Barapullah is a unique example, because it has various factors acting against it. Usually with monuments in Delhi it is a simple case of real estate pressures that threaten them. If the government/ASI can acquire the land around the monument to preserve it, as in the case of Humayun’s Tomb and Khan Khana’s Tomb nearby, the monuments can begin to be protected, and if they can’t get to the monuments in time, like in so many urban villages in Delhi, the monuments are encroached upon or right up to.

Being a bridge that spans a nala running through a major portion of south Delhi, Barapullah was never going to be encroached in that same way, but rather was going to be targeted by infrastructural entities that require a clear path through the city, like the high tension electricity pylons and now the elevated road. Being close to the Nizamuddin railway station, there was heavy traffic on Barapullah in the past, which is now diverted to the parallel bridge built next to it. Being on an open drain (once a tributary of the Yamuna on which temple ghats existed – and still do), there is always going to be untreated sewage lapping the base of the monument.

To me, the Barapullah situation encapsulates the dysfunction of our government (and of us). The slums and squatter settlements around the monument, which exist in the liminal space along the open drain and railway line, are a function of the lack of public housing, and are the reason why the makeshift market exists on the monument (though the market also serves the residential neighborhoods away from the immediate vicinity of the monument).

Apathy towards historic monuments and good planning practices in general, and apathy towards generating creative solutions to urban problems has led to the parallel road next to Barapullah, and the traffic mess in the area overall, created by the busy Nizamuddin railway station nearby. The railway station, which continues to grow in importance, has for long needed an efficient traffic scheme that also caters to the protection of Barapullah, but the various government bodies that are required to be involved for such a scheme to succeed seem unable to collaborate to design and implement it.

In the face of all this apathy, finding alternative and natural solutions to wastewater management, which these open drains in Delhi would seem ideally suited for, remains a pipe dream, which is the reason why the black water flowing under Barapullah continues to ooze by freely, adding to the vast sewer that is the Yamuna.

Where does the recent news-coverage fit into all this?

Apart from the fact that the newspapers should send someone down to check on the situation of Barapullah before indicating that the new elevated road is violating the space around it, the reporting on the feud between the ASI and other government bodies points to just why so much dysfunction occurs. The fact that the ASI has not been able to coordinate in the construction of the elevated road indicates the lack of collaboration and creative solution finding that has led to the construction of the parallel bridge next to Barapullah, and the traffic mess around the Nizamuddin railway station.

Another nearby example – the Nila Gumbad monument – also in the news recently, points to the same lack of collaboration and indeed blatant antagonism between government departments. This monument lies on the strip of land between the Humayun’s Tomb compound and the same railway line that passes close to Barapullah. Humayun’s Tomb is a World Heritage site, and the ASI wants to incorporate the Nila Gumbad monument, which is also a Mughal-era structure and an important example of Persian influence on Mughal architecture, into the overall Humayun’s Tomb complex. To do this, they requested the railways to allow a narrow road that cuts through the space between Nila Gumbad and Humayun’s Tomb to be re-routed around Nila Gumbad, and onto railway land. The railways of course have refused this request.

The recent news coverage has exposed not just current feuds between such government departments, but also shows us how such apathy and dysfunction have existed for so long. No one wants to help the other, and no one wants the trouble of getting to creative, collaborative and long-lasting solutions to problems. If I’m permitted to extend this argument, this is the case not just with the government, but with the attitude of the public as well.

Are there any signs of hope in all this?

I actually think that there might be hope in all this. The fact that long-dormant ASI rules are being brought up might indicate that there is enough (developmental, infrastructural) activity at an urban scale, and adequate media and public scrutiny being placed on that activity, to force governmental departments to make their disputes public and legal.

Hopefully, as large-scale infrastructure projects mushroom in Delhi, adequate public scrutiny will emerge, not just at the implementation stage but also at the planning stage.

In a place as rich in history and historical monuments as Delhi, the preservation and protection of such monuments will always be of prime importance, but a balance will have to be maintained between development and preservation. For example, it shouldn’t be too hard for urban design and planning professionals to come up with a solution to the Barapullah situation that addresses the needs of connectivity and traffic around Nizamuddin railway station, the elevated road project, the nearby railway line, wastewater management and electricity distribution, while at the same time helping to protect and promote the Barapullah monument. All that is needed is for the actors (both governmental as well as private citizens) involved in preservation as well as development to work together in finding innovative solutions.

Easier said than done, but up to this stage of Delhi’s recent history, neither preservation nor development have taken place to anything approaching a satisfactory degree. The few preservation successes that do exist in Delhi point to the fact that when there is a will to do it right, it’s possible even here.

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