The revamping of a space of great heritage value has garnered much criticism, be it for the novice architecture firm selected, the hope of capitalising on “romanticism of democracy” or for it being an ego trip
By MG Devasahayam
In the midst of Covid-19, the Central Vista redevelopment project in Delhi made jarring news. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) defines the Central Vista as the “ensemble with main axis Rajpath (originally called Kingsway) radiating from the Rashtrapati Bhavan at Raisina Hill, flanked by the Secretariat building (North and South Blocks) and ends in the Princes’ Park… Vijay Chowk marks the beginning of the Rajpath and forms a cross-axis at the foot of Raisina Hill. The road perpendicular to Rajpath at this point leads to the Parliament House towards the north. Rajpath sweeps eastward to a hexagonal round-about that has the India Gate and the Canopy….”
This remarkable and historical precinct was built during the British Raj, but nurtured, savoured and celebrated largely in the post-Independence era. The Central Vista area has been accorded Grade 1 heritage status under the extant Unified Building Bye Laws for Delhi. Construction and redesign on the scale planned in the redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage aspect of this precinct and destroy it irrevocably.
And on July 29, the Supreme Court, which is hearing a challenge to the Central Vista project, said it would examine the validity of the June 17 environmental clearance given to it. There are already two petitions before it on the legality of the change in land use.
There is a great deal wrong with the conceptualisation of the project. To start with, the necessity of the project has not been established with sound prior studies on administrative, heritage, environmental and technical parameters. There was no parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by any meaningful public consultation or expert review. Instead, a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm through a flawed process.
Six proposals were submitted and the Ahmedabad-based HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd won the project. It is likely to cost around Rs 25,000 crore and could double by the time it is completed in 2024 when India commences celebrating the 75th year of its Republic. The master plan presented by this firm suggests razing of several existing structures and rebuilding some new ones. Rashtrapati Bhawan, North Block and South Block would be spared. The current Parliament would become the “Museum of Democracy” and the new Parliament will be where the Annexe is. The fate of several heritage buildings abounding the Central Vista is not known.
The selected novice design firm from Gujarat appears to have been given a carte blanche to make whatever changes it wishes, with all government departments seemingly mandated to do whatever is required to enable the firm’s actions. The selection of the firm and the processes employed to do so leave a lot of questions unanswered. It is also pertinent to note that there has been no explicit exhibition of the scheme drawings, data or preceding studies for domain experts or common citizens to understand what exactly is planned in this public space of great historic and heritage value. This goes against all democratic norms.
The master plan of HCP Design envisages constructing the new Parliament building next to the existing one and an ultra-mega Common Central Secretariat. It also involves revamping the 3-km-long Rajpath—from Vijay Chowk to India Gate. The Prime Minister’s Office will be at the end of South Block. HCP Design is the only firm that suggested a brand new and palatial residence for the prime minister as part of the project. This is strange because the PM’s residence was not even mentioned in the CPWD tender to redevelop the Central Vista.
Eminent professional bodies such as the Council of Architecture, Indian Institute of Architects, INTACH, Institute of Urban Designers India and the Indian Society of Landscape Architects have written numerous letters with sound and detailed advice on various aspects of the redesign plan to the minister of housing and urban affairs. Unfortunately, these letters have been ignored.
The project’s proponents and advocates say that the new Parliament Complex will stand out as an iconic and modern edifice of democracy. It will be a triangular-shaped building, symbolising the Trinity in Indian culture. It will have two separate Houses for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha with a provision for the use of the Lower House for joint sittings of Parliament. The seating capacity of the Lok Sabha will be up to 876 from 552 and the Rajya Sabha from 250 to 400. For a joint session (in the Lok Sabha Chamber) up to 1,224 members could be accommodated. Ironically, the colossal Common Central Secretariat would be designed and built to enable the “people of India” to have easy access to the corridors of power to get their grievances redressed. One wonders how many of India’s 1.35 billion citizens, except the very privileged, ever go to the Central Secretariat to meet the mandarins and get their grievances redressed.
Bereft of any rationale—political, administrative, heritage, environment, architecture—this big-ticket project hopes to capitalise on the “romanticism of democracy”. Romanticism is dealing with or describing things in an idealised or unrealistic fashion, making it look better or more appealing than it really is. This is what is happening to India’s democracy. Soon enough, like “romance” that has been ensconced in the edifice of the Taj Mahal, democracy may be “romanticised” within the confines of this multi-billion rupee monument in the Central Vista.
We are also heading for a massive construction project for the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. Ram Rajya envisages a society in which virtue, morality and justice are the core ideals around which day-to-day interactions between citizen and citizen and state and citizen occur. But there is no semblance of these in today’s governance. Like democracy, Ram Rajya will now be confined to a mandir block built on a long-disputed site.
Looking at it from every dimension, the poser of a CPWD architect fits the Central Vista Project superbly: “Could it be that the entire project is a self-serving, vanity project akin to those undertaken by medieval emperors rather than modern democratic leaders? The project appears to create even greater distance between the head of the government and the people through the clever use of architectural design. The question to ask is whether the PM will next plan Diwan-e-Aam like gatherings outside his new residence.”
It is inhuman to indulge in such outrageous vanity at the taxpayer’s expense when millions of Indians live in fear of life and livelihood from Covid-19. But then, with “Ram Rajya”, “National Unity” and “People’s Democracy” all bottled-up in structures and monuments, aren’t we living in a “New India”?
—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer
Lead picture: HCP Designs