Delhi, in the centenary year of its designation as a capital city, has taken the first serious step towards seeking World Heritage City status from UNESCO. Three years after initiating the exercise, the State government has commenced its active campaign by launching “Delhi: A Heritage City” project and preparing a dossier to back its credentials. Aside from honouring the city in a historical sense and enhancing tourism, the much-sought-after designation could significantly improve the conservation of priceless heritage. Delhi is one of the few metropolitan cities with a high concentration of heritage structures: 155 national monuments and another 1,000 culturally important places. Various historical periods have left their imprint and turned the city into an extraordinary mosaic. Shahjahanabad is a grand example of 17th century Mughal urban planning; Mehrauli, built around the 12th century Qutub Minar, is the oldest urban settlement in the city; and New Delhi or Lutyen's Delhi is an impressive expression of 20th century garden city principles. Sadly, conservation efforts have been neither adequate nor effective. About 14 national monuments have been encroached upon and numerous heritage structures lost; continued neglect has turned Shahjahanabad into a near-slum; and the old bungalows of New Delhi have been in constant danger of being pulled down to make way for multi-storeyed buildings.
If the campaign succeeds — and there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't — Delhi will become the first Indian city to receive world heritage status. Like the 220 other world heritage cities across the world that have benefited from such designation, Delhi could reorient its conservation plans, moving away from the narrow building-centric approach and looking at protection of larger areas. A wider array of heritage elements such as gardens and squares could be safeguarded and the plan itself could be better integrated with contemporary development plans. To the credit of the Delhi government, the entire city has not been included in its proposal for world heritage status. To begin with, it plans to focus on four important heritage zones: Mehrauli, Shahjahanabad, New Delhi, and Nizamuddin. Each of these areas poses specific challenges and, quite obviously, one solution will not fit all. In the New Delhi zone, preserving the architectural character and open space must be the priority, while in Shahjahanabad the thrust has to be on improving the delivery of urban services and retrofitting housing stock. It is only by being inclusive and enabling cities to become better places to live in that conservation can succeed.