On a recent visit to Tughluqabad, I got to thinking about city planning. Somewhat off the beaten track, this fort is one of the great sights of Delhi. As the Mehrauli-Badarpur road east of Qutab Minar peters out into a rather narrow two-lane highway, the eye is caught by massive walls striding off to the north and east. These 14th-century battlements rise to 30 metres high in places, sloping inwards for strength and interspersed with bastions. The city they enclosed was built quickly, but it was built to last.
As far as historians and archaeologists can guess, Tughluqabad was built in a space of less than four years. A city—whose circumference walls run for four miles enclosing a fortified citadel and homes for tens of thousands of people—was erected from scratch in less time than it took to produce the new Delhi Master Plan. It was the symbol of a booming, if beleaguered, dynasty that thought it was going places. That’s what you can do when land is freely available—and the only planning process you have to concern yourself with is to tell your architects and engineers what you want.
The drafters of Delhi’s long-awaited Master Plan 2021 don’t have that kind of freedom. So many needs to take into consideration, so many constituencies to mollify. I wonder whether the plan’s writers ever paused at their desktops to sigh: “I wish we could just tell people what’s good for them and what’s going to happen, whether they like it or not.” If they did, they could be excused the sentiment. After all, it is only in relatively recent history that Delhi’s leaders have had to contend with public opinion, special interests and environmental concerns.
Delhi is dotted with the built remnants of earlier times, when decision-making was much more top-down, the term “grass roots” referred merely to things you pulled out of the cracks between flagstones and the only constituency that had to be satisfied consisted of a single person.
Ghiyasuddin Tughluq, the single person in this particular case, gave his name to this city and to a dynasty, but lasted just four years as the king. He was a victim of the collapse of a shoddily constructed building—a fate that seven centuries later still strikes the occasional resident of Delhi. Ghiyasuddin now contemplates his legacy from a well-preserved tomb across the road from Tughluqabad.
It’s not too shabby to have built a city in four years, but there’s cause for despondency, too. Ghiyasuddin’s son, Mohammed (who may well have been responsible for his father’s fatal “accident”), decided that Tughluqabad was not for him. Probably the biggest reason for the change of location was the shortage of water. Despite the creation of holding tanks and an artificial lake, demand had outstripped supply. Tughluqabad proved inadequate to contemporary needs, or maybe the autocratic Ghiyasuddin just hadn’t listened carefully enough to what the experts told him. Mohammed had his own master plan and proceeded to start work on a new city, Jahanpanah. Within a few years of his father’s death, Tughluqabad had been abandoned.
I found Tughluqabad fascinating, but melancholy. Shrubs and trees have overgrown many of the walls within the city and sprouting up in one area within the city is a modern village. Small concrete buildings, towered over by mobile phone masts, rise up from the greenery.
When I visited, I saw villagers digging among the ruins. I didn’t stop to see whether it was the ancient stones they were carrying off, or just the grass that grew among them. But I was reminded that Delhi’s residents have always used land and buildings to suit their economic needs. City planning can be imposed, or it can proceed by debate and consensus.
But even the grandest plans may not last as long as their designers hope. And, in the meantime, regular folks figure out how to make the city work for themselves.
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