Talking about Delhi’s Nullahs with Manit Rastogi at Morphogenesis

Manit Rastogi has a watery dream. Rastogi is the Principal and Founder of Morphogenesis, an Indian architecture and interior design firm internationally recognized for its work in commercial, residential and institutional architecture, green building, urban design and planning and interior design. As head of the Sustainable Urbanism Research Group within Morphogenesis, he works to promote innovation in urban design and planning.

His vision is to rehabilitate Delhi’s storm water drains or ‘nullahs’ into public space and alternative transport routes. Historically, the Delhi ‘nullahs’ were planned to carry the excess storm water from Delhi’s hilly ‘Ridge’ sloping down to the river Yamuna to avoid flooding in the city and provide a source of fresh water along its route. Over the years, the ‘nullahs’ have become receptors for sewage, other city and industrial waste, a blight on the city but an important resource as well for the informal settlements that aggregate on their banks. With rapid development, Delhi has turned its back on to the ‘nullahs.’ Rastogi’s plan envisages reclaiming the nullahs’ surrounding area to create open space and pedestrian corridors, a means of relieving congestion, pollution and pressure on vehicular traffic, exploding with the rapidly growing urban population.

Along public-placemaking, Rastogi’s efforts cast light on the challenge of implementation. The major deterrent has been weak urban governance and the layers of administrative authority that stifle the potential for positive change. Rastogi enumerated 18 government agencies at the national, state and municipal level with jurisdiction over the project and, therefore, a need to coordinate efforts and policies for anything to happen. [Echoes of Prakash Apte’s complaint about the 21 different permits required in Mumbai to renovate an existing building – see our interview

Despite ups and downs, supporters and detractors, the thrill is that Delhi Nullah Project was on the brink of executing two pilot stretches. Rastogi has leveraged his into an alliance of like-minded institutions and thought leaders, which has produced a provocative flow chart mapping the decision-making process among government agencies to implement the ‘nullah’ project. Rastogi’s experience with this project has convinced him that the Indian leaders with brains and vision are getting suffocated by outdated policies and unclear and nebulous processes, which preclude decisive, forward-looking action. This conversation reflected back our conversation with PK Das about his public place-making efforts on the Mumbai waterfront.

Pursuing his interests in architecture and long-term urban sustainability, Mr. Rastogi has also recently taken over the management of the Sushant School of Architecture in Delhi. Mr. Rastogi explained to us that there are 135 architecture schools in India that produce 5000 architects each year. Even if the quantity was sufficient to meet the growing workforce demand in India, there was an immediate need to improve the quality of architecture education and training in the country. Similar views were expressed in our discussions with young practitioner, Gaurav Shorey at TERI. There seems to be a common view among practitioners in India that the existing education in architecture and urban planning is outdated, based on knowledge of western best practices, or simply accepted standards and statistics. There is a need for the education to be more home-grown, that responds to the unique and complex challenges of India, its state of urban governance, public policy and building and construction Industry.

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