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(Un)fair grounds

Rakesh Kumar |

It was with a sense of disbelief that Delhi'ites learnt in November last year that Pragati Maidan would be shut down for four years for renovation. This meant, for the coming four years, no more trade fairs, book fair or any of the numerous exhibitions held there; no more film shows or restaurants to dine in; and no more ambling along its quaint inner roads. The verdant ambience that one had grown to enjoy would be shut till 2020. Demolition has begun and a few state pavilions have been razed and several trees chopped. 

Located in the heart of the city, hemmed in by the Zoological Park and the stately Purana Quila on one side and the National Science Centre on another, a Supreme Court extension complex is being built on what was once the popular Appu Ghar on the Pragati Maidan's northern edge. While visitors throng the fair grounds, spread over 150 acres, round the year, 14-27 November, when the annual India International Trade Fair is held, sees a massive crowd descending on the place year after year. Walking down the zig-zag, fenced path leading up to the fair's ticket counters, family groups and friends would anticipate a few hours of gala time. While the fair was meant to promote business, for common people it was more like a family picnic or get together for friends. Thus, more than anything, the place came to have an emotional attachment for the citizens.

As news of Pragati Maidan's demolition made its rounds, the India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) quickly rubbished the news but agreed that renovation work ~ they call it redevelopment ~ was being planned. As per the reports a huge, high-end Convention Centre will be built, after demolishing all the existing buildings including the Hall of Nations, Nehru Memorial Pavilion and the state Pavilions.

News of demolition of the Hall of Nations, two pyramidal pillar-less structures built by architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj that have been the landmarks of the fairground for over 40 years, created an uproar among architecture fraternity as well as heritage conservationists. For them both structures hold a monumental status. Court cases and protests followed. But the moot question remains: In the name of development is it right to demolish buildings of architectural significance? While changes are imminent in an evolving city, is glass and steel the way to go?

Looking back

What is now called Pargati Maidan was once known as Exhibition Ground. Starting from 1953, the place has organised several fairs. The Indian Railway celebrated its hundredth year here. Interestingly, the ground where the annual trade fair is held with much pomp and show, was once the battle control room of American and UK during World War-II.

In 1957, when the International Graphic Art and Printing Machinery exhibition was held here, it had temporary settings in pandals. But the most popular exhibition held here was in 1959, when theWorld Agriculture Fair was organised in this ground along with Indian Industrial Fair. It was a large scale exhibition and was unveiled by the then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The three-month-long fair, witnessed the participation of countries like China, Japan and the erstwhile USSR. India exhibited musical fountains, USSR stall displayed photographs of the Moon taken from space  and the US its industry.

Following the India-China war in 1962, fairs were put off for the next 10 years. After the lull, in 1972, the exhibition ground was given a modern look. All the structures one sees today, including the permanent state pavilions, were built then. The Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion also came into being.

By the year 1977, a team was formed under the Trade Fair Authority of India, who were responsible for every fair. Since then several fairs were held here, including Agro Expo in 1979.

In 1982, the fair was planned from 1-14 November, but was postponed a day before due to death of the then President of USSR  Leonid Brezhnev. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated the fair, which then became an annual affair. Subsequent fairs were inaugurated by Presidents and Prime Ministers in power. Queen Elizabeth has also visited the fair grounds twice.

"On 1 January, 1992, it was taken over by a new organisation, India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), followed by a momentum in its growth," said Sanjay Vashist, PRO of ITPO. "Since then there was no dearth of fairs ~ for watches, toys, technology and jobs. Footfall started increasing very fast. For instance, in 1994, around 60,000 people from India and abroad visited the fair."

Cycle of events

It was in November 2015 when the proposal to demolish the exhibition halls was first made by ITPO, under the Union Commerce Ministry. A convention centre was planned, which will include a hotel, parking lot and many other features. Union Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman informed the Lok Sabha, "As per preliminary details of Phase-I, it is proposed to develop 100,000 sq m of exhibition space and a 7,000-seater Convention Centre along with support facilities and parking space for 4,800 passenger cars. Other details, such as funding and schedule of completion, are yet to be firmed up."

Once it was confirmed that Pragati Maidan will be revamped, many prominent heritage conservation groups and architects have voiced against the move. Citing  cultural heritage, these groups, including INTACH, have jumped into the fray. In January, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the revamp. At the same time Delhi High Court rejected two petitions against the planned demolition. According to a report, the ITPO also urged the court "not to interfere with the proposed demolition, saying that the Rs 2,500-crore project would be a good development for the city" and that the proposal had been approved "at the highest levels, including the Prime Minister's Office".  Meanwhile, INTACH has also filed a plea against the demolition, which is to be heard on 24 March.

Why this uproar?

Building the Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion marked the 25th year of Independence. It also showcased modern architecture to the world. Designed by architect Raj Rewal and engineered by Mahendra Raj, it took almost three years to build the pyramid type structure. Rewal drew inspiration for the Hall of Nations structure from Humayun's tomb, while the Nehru Pavilion was built low-scaled and humble in character, like the ancient Stupas. "The buildings were marked as images of progress and modernity in India. Their models or drawings were the talk of town, not only in India but around the world. The building structure is on display in permanent collections of various museums and galleries, including the Pompidou Museum in Paris, New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi," informed Raj Rewal's office.

The building is not only of architecture magnificence but also has an effective system of environmental control, thanks to its 3-dimensional structure, with solid triangular panels at regular intervals providing sunscreens. Once it was declared that Pragati Maidan will be renovated and the two iconic structures demolished, there was much hue and cry among the architecture fraternity. Raj Rewal argued that these two buildings were examples of architectural brilliance. At the same time, they were projected as icons of modern India,and so shouldn't be demolished. INTACH also pleaded and filed the case to stop demolishing these two buildings as they consumed less than three per cent space. "We don't have any problem with development, but in the name of development don't throw out your heritage," A G Krishna Menon from INTACH said.

Many architects have noted that there is sufficient space within Pragati Maidan and around the threatened buildings. Therefore, efforts should be made to upgrade these spaces with modern facilities and amenities.

To save this building architecture associations from all over the world, have started a campaign or requested Indian government not to demolished it. For instance, Arun Rewal started a petition on to appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to save the three iconic buildings from demolition. The Indian Institute of Architects, the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art have written to Nirmala Sitharaman, asking that the architectural sites be preserved.

"It is not that we have made a plea to declare this building as heritage when plans to demolish were announced, but much much before. Four years ago, we gave government a list of 62 buildings in Delhi to be declared as heritage buildings. They (government) said it was a good idea but they have been dillydallying it. Now they are ready to demolish," said Menon.

Recently, the court rejected one of the pleas, citing the buildings did not come under "heritage" because they were just 40 years old. As per the Archeology Survey of India (ASI) criteria, a building has to be at least 100 years old to get a tag of heritage building. 

"In countries like the Netherlands, France and Germany, the criteria is not age but prominence. After Independence there was a strong movement among Indian architects to give an Indian identity. Other than this building we are fighting for the National Science Centre building, India International Centre and many others," said Menon.

However, ITPO is not ready to buy their arguments and have gone ahead with their demolition work. "Firstly, archaeology aspects were not proved as per the law. There is no proof, therefore the verdict was in our favour," said an ITPO official. "Their other argument to leave alone these two buildings is also not viable because this is going to become a world class integrated exhibition-cum- convention centre. All the facilities and other activities, which are very conducive for trade promotion and promotion of the MICE industry will be incorporated there. Therefore, there is no talk of partial development and it is not possible."

On ground

Spread over 123.51 acres, the fair ground  houses 65,054 sq m of covered exhibition space in 17 Halls besides 11,623 sq m of open display area. The Maidan has an auditorium, latest exhibition complex, a man-made lake,  cafeteria, Hall of Nations, two more Hall ~ Hamsadhwani, Shringar ~ and Lal Chowk. But all these will soon be a thing of the past. Renovation work has already started and Hall No 1 has already been demolished.

As per the proposed plan, there are many exciting things in the kitty. The renovation plan will be worked out phase-wise. The first phase will end within 36 months (May 2019) and with the completion of this phase, the ground will be capable of hosting global conferences and exhibitions. According to the proposed plan, there will be underground parking, exhibition halls, new roads and a Convention Hall five times bigger in capacity than Vigyan Bhawan. Plans to redevelop include not just the exhibition grounds but the surrounding roads too, as renovation would increase the traffic too. One road from the Ring Road and another from Mathura Road will be constructed, which will lead motorists directly to an underground parking lot. There will be another route from Mathura Road that will also lead to the parking lot, which will accommodate 4,800 cars. While the plans sound good on paper, Delhi'ites will wait with bated breath to see what happens to their favourite haunt.