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Historic buildings lost to India's urban boom

The Lal Mahal – India's oldest surviving Islamic palace – was demolished earlier this month, despite some efforts to better promote preservation.

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The pace of obliteration is quickening as India struggles to cope with the mass movement of migrants from the countryside to the cities.

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By 2030, India's urban population is expected to have swelled from 285 million to 575 million.

Take New Delhi, a city dotted with remnants of its invaders, from the Muslim emperors who ruled it for more than 500 years to the British colonialists who followed.

"Surely, in no city on earth – not even Rome itself – are linked memories of bygone dynasties so thick as here," wrote a traveling German soldier, Count Hans von Koenigsmarck, in 1910.

But today, the half million new inhabitants that relocate to the city every year are also leaving their mark. Mughal ruins stand forlornly in the middle of busy roundabouts, or are used as garbage dumps and urinals, while several elegant bungalows built by British architect Edwin Lutyens may soon be demolished.

"This is isn't a concern limited to New Delhi," says the ASI's director general, Anshu Vaish, when asked about the fate of the Lal Mahal. "It is something that happens all over the world, where there's urbanization and commercialization."

Furthermore, in this city of 15 million people, nearly half of whom live in slums, without proper sanitation, some say city authorities have more pressing priorities than conserving old buildings.

Conservationists like Mr. Jain, however, say that the authorities do not have to choose between preservation and development.

Indeed, especially in New Delhi, the government recognizes the importance of historical monuments for the city's global standing. Ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which the city is to host in 2010, New Delhi is planning a clean up of its most famous heritage buildings.

In 2003, Humayun's Tomb, the bulbous-domed 16th-century precursor to the Taj Mahal – which attracts hordes of tourists every year – was given a $650,000 cleanup. Only yards away, the Lal Mahal, built three centuries earlier, would have drawn foreign tourists, prepared to pay high entry fees – if only it had been given the recognition it deserved, says Mr. Jain.

He hopes that a new list of protected monuments, currently being drawn up by INTACH will make it harder for developers to take advantage of India's inadequate conservation efforts.

"But we also have to educate people, tell them that India's past heritage – as well as its future – has great value."