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23.02.2017

It’s that time of the year when rum gives way to gin, and Delhi’s barflies want nothing more than to sip beer on a terrace. But the city’s prime outdoor drinking scene has taken a big hit this golden month, with two rooftops collapsing within ten days of each other, leading to the shuttering of Connaught Place’s rooftop bars and restaurants.

Now what? The “view” has been a large part of the appeal of CP’s latest wave of watering holes, around 40 of which came up in the last five years. With no terrace on which to grab a smoke or escape from the uniformly awful music, there’s not much more than cheapish alcohol and the rare (for Delhi) barhopping potential to lure in punters. 

An Overdue Breakdown…

During CP's expensive, delayed renovation, which came to a close in 2013, the ground floor pillars and facades had been spruced up but upper stories were left largely untouched. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation went on a spree of issuing licenses to first-floor restaurants after the renovation, but it has been making abortive attempts to lock down CP’s terraces for a while now.

In the summer of 2015, citing loud music and forbidden lighting, the NDMC ordered 13 restaurants, including Monkey Bar and the Beer Café, to close off their terraces. In October 2016—under pressure from the New Delhi Traders Association, which represents CP’s business owners—the authorities then promised to formulate an action plan to combat the misuse of rooftops.

A senior, office-bearing member of the NDTA who prefers not to be named tells us that CP’s property owners are “fragmented,” with sometimes conflicting interests. “From 75 restaurants there are 175 in two years,” he says. “But when we were telling them to create the infrastructure it was falling on deaf ears.” 

The NDMC went on a spree of issuing licenses to first-floor restaurants after the renovation, but it has been making abortive attempts to lock down CP’s terraces for a while now.

Or A Well-Timed Distraction?

Rooftop restaurants were actually ordered to shut their terraces last year, but before the NDMC could do much by way of enforcement it found itself embroiled in another tussle—with a united front of shopkeepers and restaurant owners—this time about its plan to ban cars from CP. The roof collapses are a well-timed (if unintentional) distraction from that particular debate, allowing business owners to heave a collective sigh of relief as car-free CP is put on hold. 

Neither of the collapsed properties was being commercially used, it turns out—but civil engineers from IIT Delhi have found overloading to be the cause of the cave-ins. According to the senior NDTA member and National Restaurant Association of India president Riyaaz Amlani, one of the roofs collapsed due to unauthorized removal of a wall in order to make further illegal constructions, and the other due to a delay in permissions for repairs.

Leaping into action, the NDMC has summarily sealed 21 rooftop spaces, and completed a flash inspection by teams of architects, engineers, health officers, and administrators of the entire commercial complex. It’s also pursuing an inspection of Khan Market, which has become similarly top-heavy over the last couple of years, and is also slated for pedestrianization. 

Skipping Steps

The NDMC has classified more than 900 “dangerous” units in Connaught Place and sent them notices to shape up. CP’s restaurant owners argue that the corporation is going into overdrive, but the situation has calmed down over the last few days: we hear of many meetings between the NDMC, shopkeepers, and restaurant owners, to try and come to an understanding.

Though restaurant owners are upset about the shuttering, which some say has caused up to a 50 per cent decrease in income, it looks like they will have to fall in line anyway, producing new safety certificates from structural engineers. The NDTA has asked for a month’s extension—as its senior member told us, they’ve been asked, among other things, to provide sanctioned building plans, which for CP would date back to the 1930s. “We can get an eyewash certification, if that’s what they want,” he said, complaining that the onus for inspecting safety had been shifted on to the public.

"The government is thinking in the right direction," Amlani says, but argues that stakeholders like property owners, the NDTA, and the newer Connaught Place Restaurant Association, must be included in negotiations. The NDTA member tells us there is “complete unanimity” about banning changes to CP’s façade. “But this was a CBD”—a central business district— before it was a heritage zone,” he points out. “People built their futures around it as a CBD. You can’t wake up one day and say, this is heritage—you can’t paint the interior.”   

"This was a central business district before it was a heritage zone. People built their futures around it as a CBD. You can’t wake up one day and say, this is heritage—you can’t paint the interior."

Super Built Up Area

Last year, CP was ranked the world’s seventh-costliest business district, beating central London and midtown Manhattan. There’s a lot of money to be made here, but even so, there’s no doubt that everyone wants what’s best for business in the long-term. Perhaps part of the confusion is due to the slippery nature of heritage. While the arcade’s circles were built with motorcars in mind, they didn’t anticipate the crush of Delhi’s current traffic. Blanket pedestrianisation may not be a comfortable solution for businesses, but perhaps the area could be a model of mixed parking and last-stage public transport, such as shuttles.

Then, the preservation of buildings is an important aspect of retaining history—basic maintenance and repairs ought not to be subject to a lengthy permissions process. But actively translating the spirit with which CP was built into terms that suit a larger population is just as important a consideration. As Amlani tells us, “There needs to be a policy implemented yesterday about open-air dining.”

Unfortunately for you, dear outdoor drinker, by the time a decision is reached regarding the use of rooftops—whether they are looked at on a case-by-case basis, or whether the NDMC decides to interpret and enforce its directives more strictly—it will probably be too hot to dine outside anyway. But if all the collapses lead to more durable fixes, your privation will have been worth it. 

In an interview with the Times of IndiaNDMC chairman Naresh Kumar mentioned plans to set up a regulatory body for heritage buildings (the NDMC did not return our calls). If such an entity does come into being, it will hopefully also look beyond the fire hazard caused by occupied rooftops and into the potential for those caused by blockage of the Middle Circle; as well as the state of Palika Bazaar, which was found to be slowly crumbling a few years ago. It also needs both the will to work with property owners and historical experts to come up with workable definitions of heritage, and the teeth to enforce its rules when they are flouted.

After all, it would be a shame to destroy the very things that make Connaught Place special—and even lucrative—in the process of enjoying them.

This story was contributed by Sonal Shah, journalist and editor. Read more of her work on sonalshah.in.

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