India's ruling right-wing political party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of planning to sell off heritage buildings in a south Delhi muncipality to private owners.
The allegation has been levied by the leaders of the rival Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has launched a renewed attack against the BJP ahead of muncipal elections in April. The centrist AAP has controlled the Delhi government and the surrounding national capital region since 2015. But the party lost significant ground to the BJP in 2019's landslide national elections, ceding seven parliamentary constituencies in Delhi.
In a press conference held last week, reported by Press Trust India, the AAP leader Atishi Singh accused the BJP-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) of selling off the city's heritage to the highest bidder.
She was referring to a ruling passed by the SDMC earlier this month that now allows for heritage buildings under the municipality's control to be leased to private parties for commercial activities over a period of 20 years, during which the private party would bear all costs of renovating and maintaining the property.
"The BJP-ruled SDMC is now shamelessly going to sell historic buildings of Delhi to the private mafia," Singh said. "SDMC has put on the agenda for its upcoming standing committee meeting that they will now sell or lease out Delhi’s heritage properties to private owners."
Singh suggested that if the municipality is unable to maintain its heritage buildings, it should hand them over to the AAP-controlled Delhi government department of archaeology and tourism, which could utilise them to boost tourism in the city.
Around 450 heritage buildings fall under the South Delhi municpality's control, some over 400 years old. These include the 250-year-old water reservoir Hauz e Shamsi, the 150-year-old St Thomas Church and a 350-year-old malaria office in Mehrauli.
Pushing back against Singh's claims, the municipality's mayor, BJP politician Mukesh Suryan, said in an official statement that the AAP is "lying" by claiming that property will be sold. Rather, "property is being rented out through a transparent process of open tendering. There is no question of corruption or selling these properties, nor is there any harm if we rent [them] out for generating more revenue for [the] corporation,” he said.
But Singh pointed to recent examples in which properties under SDMC control had been sold—including schools and other civic buildings, such as a historic cinema—for "paltry sums", she said, adding that more heritage structures will soon be auctioned off. The first heading for auction is a 250 sq.m-heritage building in the Mehrauli neighbourhood, according to Singh.
Speaking at the same conference, AAP leader Prem Chouhan said his party will oppose the BJP-ruled corporation’s move to auction off heritage buildings under its jurisdiction and would not allow the civic body to “sell Delhi’s history”.
“The BJP had made similar efforts in the past. Even then, the Aam Aadmi Party had vehemently opposed it. We will not remain silent this time as well,” Chouhan said.