The debate on whether parliament should shift to a new address has come up once again. Should the iconic circular building be abandoned or refurbished and expanded to make it spacious is the question.
By Kalyani Shankar
Is the Indian parliament looking for a new address? The idea of moving to a new building has come up now and then in view of the fact that the 88-year-old Sansad Bhavan is getting worn out. There is also resistance to such a move because Parliament House—since it has witnessed the evolution of Indian democracy—is as iconic to New Delhi as Westminster is to London or the high-domed Capitol building in Washington is to the United States. Neither the US nor the UK would think of a new parliament complex abandoning these historic premises.
Located in the heart of New Delhi, the imposing Parliament House to the northwest of Vijay Chowk is a historic example of British colonial architecture. Millions of tourists come every day to take a look at the circular building that exudes breathtaking majesty.
PROPOSAL FOR CHANGE
The debate on relocating parliament began after Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan sent a recommendation to the urban development ministry to consider building a new parliament complex in December. She argued that the present building is not big enough to accommodate MPs of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, the staff, parliamentary committees and the paramilitary personnel besides the offices of political parties. She also stressed that by 2026 more members will be added to the present Lok Sabha.
To put it in a nutshell, Mahajan’s case was that, with the expanding scope of parliamentary oversight functions, increase in number of committees and security requirements, the demand for space has also increased enormously. Above all, the building was showing signs of distress and overutilization. “Under the circumstances, there is an imperative need for the construction of a new state-of-the-art parliament building,” the Speaker wrote to the parliamentary affairs minister.
She suggested two options —one to construct a new building within the existing Parliament House complex and the second to build a new one nearby, perhaps across Rajpath in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi.
Mahajan has a point. It is true that the present Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha premises may not be adequate if the number of MPs goes up. The number of seats in the Lok Sabha from each state is fixed on the basis of population figures, and a fresh delimitation exercise would take place after 2026. But this need could be met with some refurbishing and altering of the two existing houses besides making judicious use of the complex.
The present parliament building is certainly looking tired and needs upgrades and modifications. But the question is do we need to spend huge amounts of money for a new Parliament House? Yes, say those who want a new building. They cite the example of Australia, where the parliament, which was built around the same time as ours, moved to a new building in 1988.
Those who want a new House cite the example of Australia, where the parliament, which was built around the same time as ours, moved to a new building in 1988.
Interestingly, Mahajan is not the first Speaker to make such a proposal. Her predecessor Meira Kumar also had initiated a move in 2012, but it was shot down by the then urban development and parliamentary affairs minister Pavan Bansal. The then heritage committee, which had distinguished members like LK Advani and Karan Singh, was also not in favor of the proposal.
Parliament House is to New Delhi what Westminster is to London and Capitol Hill to Washington DC. Neither the US nor the UK would ever think of abandoning them for a new parliament complex.
Bansal even today is of the view that the parliament should not be shifted. He told India Legal: “They should de-congest the building. Alterations to the original design and unauthorized occupation of space, presence of hazardous materials and congestion need to be addressed. I would also suggest that new buildings could be added opposite the Red Cross building and connected to the Parliament House, Parliament Annexe, library and even the main reception through an underground link making it a workable complex.”
The panic about an unsafe Parliament House started in 2009, when a part of the ceiling fell in room 27, which was occupied by the then petroleum minister Murli Deora. Fortunately, he was not present in the room. Also, it was found that the building did not have a fire safety certificate. Speaker Meira Kumar promptly stopped the kitchen in the main parliament building. Since then, food is cooked in the adjacent library building and brought to the main building to serve the MPs and the parliament staff. She also set up a committee to find an alternate complex commenting that the building was “weeping”. The committee came up with a report that the building is indeed falling into disrepair with leaking pipes, damp walls, space crunch and much wear and tear.
At that time, one suggestion that came up was to build a replica of Parliament House on the southern side of Vijay Chowk and connect both buildings through a tunnel. The second was using the space adjacent to Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Road. Another suggestion was that a new structure be built across Vijay Chowk as was envisaged by Sir Edward Lutyens himself who had thought of a mirror image of Parliament House on a plot that is being presently used as temporary barracks. However, the Manmohan Singh government had shelved the idea in 2012 but three years later Mahajan has revived it again with a fresh proposal to the Modi government. It is to be seen how the Modi government responds.
The history of the Parliament House complex is quite interesting. In 1912, while designing the capital, Edwin Lutyens had also earmarked space for legislative institutions but Viceory Lord Hardinge shot down the idea. If it were not for the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, the Parliament House may not have been built.
Its foundation stone was laid on February 12, 1921, by the Duke of Connaught. While India’s new capital city was designed by Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker was responsible for designing the Parliament House. The opening ceremony of the Parliament House—the then Council House — was performed on January 18, 1927, by the Governor-General of India, Lord Irwin. The third central legislative assembly was the first to meet in this historic building on January 19, 1927.
Spread over six acres, the circular building with an open verandah on the first floor of the building is fringed with a colonnade of 144 cream sandstone columns—each 27 feet (8.23 meters) high. The dome of the circular Central Hall, measuring 29.9 meters (98 feet) in diameter and 36 meters (118 feet) in height, is considered to be one of the most magnificent domes in the world. The Central Hall has witnessed many historic events. The Constituent Assembly met in this Hall from December 9, 1946, to November 26, 1949, to frame our Constitution. Subsequently, the Constitution of India was also adopted in this historic hall. Nehru made his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech from this hall.
There are forceful arguments against the proposal for building a new parliament house. Those who subscribe to its historic importance abhor the very idea. While the building may be 88 years old it is certainly quite young as compared to many other parliament buildings in the world. The Westminster in London is centuries old. In fact, the House of Commons is not very spacious as the distance between the treasury benches and the opposition is just two sword lengths.
As Bansal points out, after the massive fire in the Westminster building in 1834, it was not abandoned but rebuilt, incorporating many old parts and it became functional from 1870. Millions of pounds have been spent on keeping the Westminster safe. The iconic Capitol, which occupies the Washington skyline, is in existence since 1800. The Capitol has also seen constant renovations. Both these buildings have undergone constant upgrade. It is felt that with care and attention, the present building can serve another century.
Secondly, those who argue against a change of address believe that restoration is the need of the hour and not abandoning the heritage building. After all, parliament has to preserve its own history. It needs a major surgery and what is required is an exclusive agency to look after the maintenance and repairs.
It is also felt that any change should not be a knee-jerk reaction and should be thought through before tampering with the legacy. At the same time, it is imperative that Parliament House not be left to such deterioration. Repairs, upkeep and modernization are necessary. Also, there is potential to create a larger hall near the present parliament library to seat additional MPs. An extension could also be built opposite the Red Cross building — one of the three triangles of the Parliament House complex.
Many experts feel other possibilities like building new structures in the complex, connecting them and moving committees and members’ rooms to these new buildings would decongest Parliament House. Over the years, Parliament Annexe and the new library building were added to meet rising space requirements. If more members are added in 2015, one suggestion has been to convert Central Hall into Lok Sabha, shift Rajya Sabha into the current Lok Sabha premises and turn Rajya Sabha into the canteen.
The moot question is, with a non-functioning parliament and truant political parties, do MPs deserve a new parliament house and is there any guarantee that they will perform their duties as parliamentarians any better? More than a new parliament, what the political parties should ensure is that members are present in the house to debate and discuss issues and conduct crucial legislative business. Changing the seat of India’s democracy is certainly not the answer. The parliament is “weeping” not because it has become old and tired but because the house is not functioning.