New Delhi: Over 60 retired IAS and IPS officers, including two former secretaries in the environment ministry, have urged the Narendra Modi government to not go ahead with its ambitious Central Vista project.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, former secretaries, environment ministry, Meena Gupta and Tishyarakshit Chatterjee, and Narendra Sisodia (former secretary, finance), senior IPS officer Julio Ribeiro, former ambassadors Aftab Seth and Ashok Kumar Sharma, a former Income Tax commissioner A. Selvaraj and others have said, “Construction and redesign on the scale planned in the redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage nature of this precinct, and destroy it irrevocably.”
“The redevelopment planned will, moreover cause severe environmental damage,” the letter states. “This precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the city, with its dense mature tree canopies serving as a repository of bio diversity and the vast lawns of the Vista as a watershed for the city between the Ridge and the Yamuna.”
It adds, “Constructing a large number of multi-storeyed office buildings, with basements, in this open area will create congestion and irreversibly change and damage the environment.”
The letter says Delhi already suffers from “enormous environmental pollution”. “To plan something which will increase this pollution many, many times, not merely during the construction phase but also subsequently, is clearly a thoughtless and irresponsible act.”
The Central Vista plan
In a controversial Rs 20,000-crore project, the Modi government seeks to redevelop the iconic Central Vista, and build a triangular Parliament building next to the existing one, common Central Secretariat, revamp the 3-km Rajpath, build a new Parliament House on a 9.5-acre land near the existing building, reportedly shift the Prime Minister’s residence and office near the South Block, and build the Vice-President’s new house in the vicinity of the North Block.
Despite opposition against the plan on account of environmental degradation, obliteration of Indian heritage, and allegations of spending crores on this project at a time of a public health emergency, the government has not halted the project.
In their letter, the retired officers have also said the government has provided no details about the necessity of the project, and instead the purpose of the redevelopment seems to be to leave the stamp of a particular government on Delhi.
“This project began, if reports are to be believed, because of a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky’, as well as with the thought of leaving a particular government and its leader’s impression on the architecture of Delhi,” the letter states. “There was no Parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by any public consultation or expert review. Instead a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm in what was an extremely flawed process.”
It adds, “The selected architectural firm appears to have been given 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 plan to concentrate offices of the central government in one place, moreover, belies the Modi government’s own stated aim of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, the officers have said. “This is against the basic tenets of the Master Plan of Delhi which stipulates that no new offices should be built in New Delhi and that efforts should be made to decongest it. It is also out of sync with the maxim of ‘less government, more governance’, which the present government had in its manifesto,” the letter states.
Letter questions ‘haste’
The officers have also raised questions over the “haste” with which the project is being pushed through despite an unprecedented countrywide lockdown, which has stalled all routine governance and economic activity throughout the country. “It is sad to note that approvals of empowered supervisory bodies like the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Vista Committee have been pushed through in great haste at meetings convened at short notice while the country is in lockdown due to the Covid 19 epidemic, and despite the absence of private members who expressed their inability to attend and advised waiting till the nation returned to normalcy.”
The letter says, “The clearances are being given despite the matters being sub judice. These bodies have, unfortunately, been reduced to mere rubber stamps with notes of dissent not even recorded.”
At a time when crores would be needed to boost the economy as it slumps in the face of the lockdown, the government trying to push a heritage redevelopment project of this nature is akin to “Nero fiddling while Rome burned”, the officers have said.
“We strongly believe that this project needs to be stopped forthwith for the multiple and complex reasons we have mentioned above. We appeal to the government to see the fallacy in going ahead with this project and to issue the necessary notifications forthwith to stop the work from going ahead.”
See the full text of the open letter here.