NEW DELHI: Welcome to the corridors of horror. Fasten your seat belts, clutch your application forms, ignore the musty smell, avoid the rows of broken furniture and paan stains that lie splattered on the floor and head single-mindedly towards your destination. Don't ask for directions, you might lose your way. Caution: you might never get through alive. 

Government buildings have never inspired poets or painters and it's no wonder. In the most charitable moods, generous hearted people are known to contemplate gloomy images as they stand in a line waiting for their drivers' license/birth certificate /building completion certificate/income tax papers. 
So why is it that government or public buildings in general seem so dismal? It is not just the architecture that is sacrificed to the altar of babu dom but also the poor maintenance, lack of a barrier free environment and flouting of basic safety norms that are perennial problems. A case in point is the Municipal Corporation of Delhi's (MCD) headquarters, Town Hall in Chandni Chowk. 

"The first time I stepped in to Town Hall I was shocked. The sole corridor was narrow with air-conditioners and pieces of furniture abutted so that only one person could cross the corridor at a time. What if the place caught fire," an MCD employee said. 

And MCD is not the only culprit. The cash-rich New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) are no better. Incidentally, the floor that has the offices of the Council chairperson, vice-chairperson and secretary are mopped regularly and decorated with potted plants while service floors that are open to the public are known more for their stained walls, little or no seating arrangement, leaking taps and smelly toilets. 

Says K T Ravindran, head of department of urban design from the School of Planning and Architecture, "It is a peculiar landmark of all government buildings whether it is Shastri Bhawan or Krishi Bhawan. The service and storage areas are always badly maintained. The toilets are in fact indicative of how well the building is maintained." 

"The whole system of building and designing puts architects subservient to engineers. So in many cases architects finish the plans and just hand over the papers. They might not even visit the site after that," said Sumit Ghosh, an architect who has worked with the Delhi Development Authority on several projects. 

He adds the situation is similar in Public Works Department (PWD) and Central Public Works Department (CPWD). Contrary to the present image of the public works department, the CPWD produced some outstanding buildings in the early years. Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar was the first Indian to head the CPWD followed by Shridhar Krishna Joglekar. Habib Rahman was responsible for many of the buildings that give central New Delhi its present character like the Post and Telegraph building and the WHO building. 

Today however there are instances of how the splendour of North and South Block has been diminished by white tiles on staircases because people cannot stop spitting or "temporary tin sheds" for storage in the courtyards. 

Safety factor: Dealing with thousands of people every day, one would expect these buildings to be safe. High hopes! Fire incidents are not unheard of even in places of power like Shastri Bhawan. In September this year, a fire broke out in Delhi police headquarters. The building does not have the required no-objection certificate from the Delhi Fire Service. MCD's building department in Town Hall was also witness to a fire in July this year. Several important files and records were lost in this fire. 

The reason in most of these incidents is a short circuit. A senior MCD official said, "The problem is that the offices are very cramped. So even if a small cigarette butt is lying around, it can start a fire and then it spreads very fast because of the files lying in a haphazard manner." 

Fire drills are unheard of in the government offices here. A senior NDMC official said, "Fire drills are not mandatory. So they are not conducted on a regular basis. But we do observe Fire Safety weeks. This educates the people how to manage themselves in case of a fire and how to vacate the premises. We take enough care." 

No matter how jazzy we make the government offices, give a few days and the buildings will start looking like sarkari offices. 

The paan stains will come. The files will be littered. More cabins will be constructed to make space for employees. Mess and more mess will happen.