| HOUSE PROUD: (Above) A bird’s eye view of a Lutyens bungalow and (below) a night view at one of the bungalows
Two friends, the apocryphal story goes, met at a school reunion after years and ended up exchanging notes. One, now a business magnate, couldn’t stop bragging about the good things in life he had earned. Imported cars, houses in the metros, vacations in the Mediterranean — the list went on and on, before he stopped and asked: “What do you have'”
The other friend was an honest bureaucrat and had nothing much to brag about. But he stared his friend in the eye. “I have a Lutyens bungalow,” he replied.
While it still doesn’t quite compare to staking claim to a ‘Ma’, Bollywood style, a Lutyens bungalow in central Delhi is perhaps among the most-desired possessions to figure on the priority lists of India’s rich and mighty. Those splendid, single-storeyed, white colonial mansions, some 800 of them, spread across 550 hectares in the heart of New Delhi, fit into a verdant urban jigsaw that a British architect called Edwin Lutyens had put together almost 100 years ago. Part Baroque, part Victorian, they stand — nestled in their green surroundings — as mute witnesses to the imperial history of the capital, bearing premium addresses that any self-respecting achiever would want to flaunt.
Only a handful of the houses were sold to buyers and now change hands for a fortune — one recently went for about Rs 170 crore. The rest still remain with the government and serve as residences for top politicians and bureaucrats, with some doubling as party offices. The rent on one of these bungalows would vary according to location, construction and area. Reckons Sunil Bedi, managing director of JMD Builders, “One could safely say that it would be in the range of around Rs 15-40 lakh a month.”
But there simply aren’t enough bungalows to go around. It’s easy to see why. The central government has about 83 secretaries to ministries and departments — and all are entitled to a bungalow. All Union ministers and ministers of state get bungalows. So over 50 more bungalows have to be earmarked for them. Others entitled to bungalows include the 22 Supreme Court judges, the vice-chairman of the Planning Commission, the cabinet secretary, the police commissioner and senior members of Parliament.
So the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), an advisory body on preserving and developing the aesthetics of Delhi’s urban and environmental design, has drawn up a development plan to build more bungalows in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ). “The recommendations, if implemented, would see the plots of these bungalows — several of which go up to almost four acres — being split into a uniform one acre, thereby scooping out extra space to build more bungalows,” explains Jasbir Sawhney, member, DUAC.
An experimental project is already underway in LBZ’s Sunehri Bag area, where a pocket with 19 old bungalows is being redesigned to accommodate 32 of them. Three old houses are supposed to be torn down, while not disturbing the character and essence of the area. “If successful, we could apply the model to other pockets as well,” says Sawhney.
Good news' Conservationists don’t think so. There’s reason for that. Lutyens Delhi, now a ‘special area’ governed by regulations laid down by the Prime Minister’s Office, was built from 1911 onward to house the British government that had shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. “It was built on the lines of a garden city, where Lutyens created a perfect ensemble of human construction and their surrounding environment,” says architect A.G. Krishna Menon, convenor of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
Ratish Nanda, senior project manager, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, points out that it came up at a time when funds were short, as World War I began soon after construction started. “Nonetheless, the capital became the most beautiful garden city in the world to have been built between the two Great Wars,” he says.
These, some say, are among the intangible reasons why the LBZ needs to be showcased, even if it stands as an open-air museum of British-Indian architecture. Besides, a Delhi-based architect points out that the LBZ — which occupies an overall 2,800 hectares — forms only 1.6 per cent of today’s Delhi. “Is there really any need to encroach into this tiny area' Why not just make an effort to preserve it,” the architect asks.
But aesthetics and practical reason have always been at loggerheads. “Lutyens had built a city for 25,000 people, and given the spread, he could be generous with land allotment,” reasons Sawhney. “Can we afford to stick by that logic 100 years later' ” he asks.
Even as the argument rages, a unique aspect of the bungalows head-butts its way in to heat it up even further. Lutyens bungalows, say historians, were not built by Lutyens. While he oversaw the construction of bigger structures such as Rashtrapati Bhavan, only the land allotment for the bungalows was done by him — the actual construction was executed by his engineers. Neither do all bungalows date back to the pre-Independence years — several were built by the Indian government at later stages. Civic records show that the trees in the area were not handpicked by him either. “The list was drawn up by two British gardeners and later worked on by the forest department,” says Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi.
In that light, many have questioned the move for conservation, arguing that most of it is not Lutyens’s work. Besides, many of the bungalows are crumbling anyway.
Some experts such as L.P. Srivastava, chief engineer (Zone I), Central Public Works Department, the government body in charge of maintaining these bungalows, don’t see more than a couple of decades’ life in them. “None of the bungalows has damp-proof flooring, while most were built with mud mortar, even though lime mortar was well in use in the 1910s,” says Srivastava. “The roofing isn’t concrete either. Somehow, it seems like these bungalows were probably built as temporary structures, meant to give way to newer construction over time.”
But the conservationists are not convinced. “If we could prevent misuse of the bungalows, as was done in the past, we could definitely preserve them, along with the rest of the ensemble of Lutyens Delhi, as a world heritage city,” says Krishna Menon. “And high maintenance costs are not a viable argument for razing them or altering the ambience in which they are located. The city, as a whole, must be conserved,” he says.
In Sunehri Bagh, meanwhile, the bulldozers are set to move in.