Friday, March 31, 2023
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Modi’s Central Vista plan shows Indian urban planners are as complicit in destroying heritage

Modi government’s plan-as-you-go strategy for Delhi’s Central Vista shows how India’s urban planners engage, without reflection, in projects harmful to society.

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Many decades ago, when I was studying urban planning at New York’s Columbia University, I submitted an assignment on urban planning in India to my professor, Charles Abrams, who was a well-known expert on third-world urban development and a consultant to the UN. One remark he made was an epiphany. He said, if you scratched an Indian urban planner, you would find a fascist.

Abrams said this in the context of my repeated references to the need of using the police powers of the state to implement the master plans of cities. It was only on my return to India, and engaging with the profession, that I began to comprehend the significance of his prescient insight. It enabled me to honourably orient my engagement with a profession that I found was clinging on to authoritarian strategies to solve the urban problems of a transforming society.

It struck me that one of the defining objectives of Indian urban planning was to erase all manifestations of indigenous urbanism and impose a ‘modern’ order based on foreign models of urban development. This propensity has morphed in recent times to advocate the imperatives of ‘smart’ and ‘world class’ cities. People’s modest quest for shelter and livelihood invariably failed to conform to the abstract ideals of planners, and consequently were branded as illegal and demolished. The urban planner and the administrators who manage cities, I realised, were ignorant of the meaning or significance of urban heritage, even as they simultaneously proclaimed with pride our ‘5,000-year urban history’. These paradoxes resurfaced in my mind when I learnt about the Narendra Modi government’s audacious proposal to revamp the Central Vista in New Delhi.

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A megalomania

Central Vista is defined as a heritage precinct in the Master Plan of Delhi, and its iconic character was recommended by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. The NDA government under Narendra Modi however, withdrew that application when it came to power in 2014 on the specious proposition that the heritage status would be ‘anti-development’.

The first time Indians became aware of the Modi government’s intent to ‘revamp’ Central Vista was in September 2019, when the Ministry of Urban Development invited bids for the appointment of a consultant for the “Development/Redevelopment of Parliament Building, Common Central Secretariat and Central Vista at New Delhi”. The sudden revelation turned to shock when the objectives of the project sank in — to create “new iconic structures (that) shall be a legacy for 150 – 200 years at the very least … to represent the values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity and is rooted in the Indian Culture and social milieu”. This evoked consternation given the well-known political agenda of the ruling party to erase ‘colonial heritage’. The Modi government will be spending an estimated Rs 20,000 crore in four years following, what appears to be, a plan-as-you-go strategy.

One does not know whether to deal with this megalomania as a tragedy or a comedy. Apologist pointed out that every emperor built a new capital in Delhi, forgetting that our democratic republic is not ruled by an emperor. Not even the parliamentarians had an inkling about the dreams of the emperor. Others identified the many procedural and legal transgressions that abounded in the proposed scheme. Many such urban renewal projects are being proposed all over India to upgrade other cities, with similar contentious agendas. Often these projects originate on account of political visions, as in the case of the Central Vista project, but in all cases, its drafting and execution are the works of intelligent and professionally competent architects, urban planners and administrators. The Central Vista plan is being drawn up by architect Bimal Patel —who Modi roped into work on everything from Gujarat to Varanasi.

Abram’s observation only partially explains the nature of such exercises, but to understand the whole picture it is necessary to look deeper and examine a generic fault line endemic to Indian urban planning.

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‘World-class’ failings

In essence, this urban planning fault line can be described by paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, as ‘the banality of routine’. Like decent people become complicit in perpetrating evil, urban planners in India also engage in, in an unreflective way, with projects that can be harmful and inimical to the welfare of society. These projects are seldom driven by the planner’s analytical reflexivity, but by external agents, like an aggrandising political vision or benefits to be accrued from undertaking lucrative real estate projects. The planners in all cases are the cogs in the wheel.

The professional urban planner, engineer or architect does not take moral ownership of the work they do. It is the fault line in the profession, which is the root cause of the disjunction between professional means and societal ends. Perhaps, this moral ambiguity of urban planning in India emanates from the colonial origins of the profession, but it can’t be a justifier even after 70 years after Independence.

Routine practices do not critically question strategies to plan local sites on foreign urban models. So, it is not surprising that the urban design scheme proposed for the Central Vista project does not respect the public character of this iconic public space of New Delhi. The project proponents are tone-deaf because, in defence, they strenuously emphasising the number of square meters that have added to the open area. In this manner, the extraordinary diversity of this and other historic cities are flattened by beautifying them to make them ‘world class’.

The banality of routine views all urban problems in the country to be alike and amenable to similar solutions. It does not distinguish between the particular characteristics of the aging Central Vista in New Delhi or the congestion in Varanasi or commercialisation of Shahjahanabad. Conserving the cultural significance of historic precincts does not underpin the initiatives for its renewal.

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Banality of routine

Although conservation professionals in India have long cited the examples of historic cities in Europe where urban heritage is routinely and compellingly conserved while introducing contemporary amenities, this model of contextually sympathetic urban renewal is not followed in India. In urban planning parlance, the objective in the Indian context is to develop ‘indigenous modernity’ and not impose ‘Eurocentric modernity’ to upgrade local habitats.

In many recent projects to upgrade historic cities, including the Central Vista project, the universally acknowledged principles of good practices have been bypassed to achieve quick results. This results in straight forward beautification exercises to mimic ‘world class’ benchmarks, a process that is typically justified by the self-serving rationale that ‘there is no alternative’.

In Varanasi, for example, the challenge of dealing with the dense urban fabric constituting the iconic character of the historic city was ‘solved’ by demolishing large swathes to create a grand landscaped plaza directly linking the Vishwanath Temple to the Ghats of the river Ganges. This design solution borrows more from Vitruvius, the Roman architectural grammarian, and Camillo Sitte, the late 19th century Austrian urban theorist, than from the genius of the generations of local builders who contributed to organically create this iconic Indian city. Another egregious example, is the work carried out on the grand processional avenue of Chandni Chowk, where public toilets, electric transformers and security booths are being located on its central verge, again because ‘there is no alternative’. The desecration of the cultural heritage of both cities are the result of the banality of routine.

Also read: Parliament to Kashi Vishwanath: Why Modi always hires architect Bimal Patel for pet projects

Complicit in destroying Central Vista

In this light, the revamping of the Central Vista displays a similar contempt for the need to adhere to the protocols for conserving heritage and the environment. Ingenuously, the project proponents claim that they will conduct a heritage and environmental study after the design is finalised.

The latest in the unfolding drama of professional complicity is the hastily conducted exercise by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to change the land use of the project area and thus provide an ex post facto legal mantle to revamp the Central Vista.

Public notice invited stakeholders to file their objections to the proposal and several hundred cogent, credible and convincing objections were filed. These were duly ‘heard’ at a public meeting but deliberated in camera. To no one’s surprise, the DDA announced its approval to the change of land use in the project area in ‘public interest’. No other rationale has been offered. This was challenged in the Delhi High Court, which issued a stay on further proceedings, pending the response of DDA to the objections filed by the petitioners. This stay was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court by the Modi government, and the Supreme Court was will now listen to the cases on 18 March.

Not many urban development projects have attracted the attention of both civil society and professionals to examine the promises that these projects make to contribute to the welfare of society. But the Central Vista project has also revealed an aspect of our society’s engagement with modernity that is seldom discussed in the public domain — how we deal with the future of our historic cities. It has thrown into sharp relief the Modi government’s obdurate pursuit of its political agenda to impose a new identity on this remarkable urban heritage, and the banality of routine makes the professional urban planner, architect and administrator very much complicit in that process. My Columbia University professor Abrams alerted me to this propensity a long time ago, but today we have the opportunity to discuss it in the public domain.

The author is an architect, urban planner, conservation consultant and academic. He has undertaken pioneering conservation projects in several historic cities including Varanasi and Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. Doesnt the author understand that the main goal of the Govt is indigenisation of everything, mainly the thought process, which has for thousand years has been lost due to victimization of the cruel colonizers and their proxies? Nothing can now stop the onward surge which started with the birth of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahnasa dev and his disciple Swami Vivekananda. Try what so ever you cant resist their power!

  2. This is why the ‘left’ is losing.. till i read this article, I was mostly neutral about the whole subject.. Now I am rooting for them to destroy everything and start from scratch.. The Right is not winning elections.. the left is losing them.. 🙂

  3. One takes umbrage to “use” and acknowledge usage of expressions like third world architectural heritage.let’s be more confident by analysing as per our future needs and visions..rather than taking ideations from only foreign sources. Help the government through positive solutions rather than taking ideological posturings.

  4. Which heritage are you talking about? The one setup by British? Well, we Indians don’t consider it as our heritage but more as our suppression also known as colonialism. Well done Modi, build a New India.

  5. Before an exercise of this magnitude commiting huge resource in whichever field, is taken up, there is always a study done as to its need and if any good will come out of it. But alas no such exercise and no public consultation is done especially when besides the huge monetary public resource, even greater resource, the public realm in terms of space has been carried out. Great urban public places anywhere have an evolutional redevelopment approach, never the derogatory, erase everything and draw plans in the Albert Spear style.

  6. Agk menon..we would like to see what works you have done. Any Architecture..any UD..we can remember. Want to know if are just a talker or if you ever built .

  7. Mr. Modi just do the job of running the country. Stop destroying it. For Bharat Mata’s sake. Goddamit.

  8. Most academies in the west are infested with these scums and they think they can decide what is good and what is bad for us

  9. The moment he used the words fascist and megalomania, I realized that this chap is using political keywords to try and discredit something he doesn’t really have any solid arguments against. This implies his opposition is also political-ideological and probably grounded in delusion. Boring.

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