The Narendra Modi government wants to “develop/redevelop” the heart of the capital of India, the Central Vista that extends from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in New Delhi. The question is, why? What is the need to do so? What’s the objective?
The Central Public Works Department has issued a notice inviting tenders, but the bid document, titled: “Development/Redevelopment of Parliament Building, Common Central Secretariat and Central Vista at New Delhi”, says very little about the objective. The government doesn’t even know whether it wants to “develop” the Central Vista or “redevelop” it. Surely there must be some difference between the two.
It further reads: “The objective of the bid documents is to re-plan the entire Central Vista area from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan up to India Gate, an area of approximately four square kilometres. A new Master Plan is to be drawn up for the entire Central Vista area that represents 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.”
The Central Vista buildings were designed by Lutyens and Baker by assimilating Indian architectural styles into the idea of a capital city as it exists in the West. The similarity between the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s dome and that of the Sanchi Stupa is not coincidental.
How are new buildings going to “represent” New India? How does a new building “represent” “Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity”? Is it worth the time, money and effort to build a new capital just to “represent” values and aspirations? Would it not be better to practice “Good Governance” rather than “represent” it in architecture?
On what basis?
The note says, “The Master Plan shall entail concept, plan, detailed design and strategies development/redevelopment works, refurbishment works, demolition of existing buildings as well as related infrastructure and site development works.”
Which building should be refurbished? Which ones would be demolished completely only to be built anew? And such decisions will be based on what? What is the plan even trying to achieve? The note doesn’t say.
What it harps on about instead is this: “These new iconic structures shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least.” The Central Vista is part of New Delhi that was completed only in 1931. It is not even 100 years old. The government wants to build a new capital that will last 150-200 years, but what makes it think the current one, less than 100 years old, is obsolete?
It adds, “Most of the buildings in the Central Vista area are more than 40-50 years old and have either outlived or approaching their structural lives.” The document cites no study to show that the buildings have outlived their “structural lives”. If a building must be demolished after 40-50 years, how, and why, is this new construction supposed to last 200 years?
The government notice then makes another unsubstantiated claim: “Buildings constructed over 100 years ago such as North and South Block are not earthquake safe.” Once again, no study has been cited to show they are earthquake unsafe.
Urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri has clarified that North Block and South Block are heritage buildings, so their facade won’t be demolished. Similarly, the facade of the Parliament building won’t be touched. But if they are not earthquake safe, shouldn’t they be rebuilt? Or is the Modi government looking at seismic retrofitting? Is that the objective?
The note says, “There is shortage of working spaces, parking, amenities and services. The spread of Central Government Ministries and Departments in different locations leads to inefficiencies and difficulty in coordination.” Minister Puri has similarly said the Central Vista, “lacks basic public facilities, amenities and parking. The unorganized vending and haphazard parking leads to congestion and gives a poor public perception. Therefore, there is a need for its upgradation.”
Actually, the Central Vista is one of the least congested parts of Delhi. Traffic keeps moving. If at all there’s any problem it is due to security restrictions around India Gate, especially around Republic Day. As for co-ordination between ministries, surely they use the internet these days?
The note says a “common central secretariat” is to be built by July 2022. So, instead of having separate buildings for the railways and agriculture ministries, they will all become part of one building. Goodbye Rail Bhavan, Krishi Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan and all the other Bhawans. But why? What’s the need? How will this make our trains run on time and prevent our farmers from committing suicide? If the Parliament building, North and South Block can be refurbished without being demolished, why can’t the same be done to the Bhawans?
The note says the redevelopment would make the Central Vista “a world class tourist destination by November 2020”. That’s like saying we want to redevelop the Taj Mahal to make it a “world class tourist destination”. It is already one! International tourists are shunning Delhi not because the Central Vista isn’t good enough. They are avoiding Delhi because it is one of the world’s most polluted cities and also one of the most unsafe for women. Demolishing many of central Delhi’s buildings is only going to add more dust in the city’s air.
So what exactly is the reason behind building a new capital? Is it belief in the pseudo-science of vastu?
“Most of these buildings came up from 1911-1927, and they are very imposing,” minister Puri has said. One wonders what the problem with those particular 17 years is. The buildings are imposing? Well, the most imposing buildings are North Block and South Block but their facade isn’t going to be touched. So what’s the point? Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate are also not going be to touched — hopefully.
If you think the minister has a problem with only those 17 years from 1911 to 1927, he soon contradicts himself. He is equally unhappy with buildings that came up after independence. “But those made after Independence, some of these seem to have been built in a hurry, and may have outlived their purpose,” he says. And yet, the government wants to build an entire new capital in a similar hurry.
Minister Puri has made it clear the whole idea is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “dream project”. In other words, Prime Minister Modi had a dream. Just as Shah Jahan decided to build a grand mausoleum for his wife, Modi wants to build a new capital for his vanity. Every emperor wants to build his own capital, and emperor Modi is no different.
The tender bid document has so many conditions for potential bidders that it seems to be designed to award the contract to a pre-selected party. It will cost a lot of money, resources, cause environmental damage, threaten heritage… all those things for what? Just to satisfy the megalomania of the prime minister?
The Central Vista is heritage made through public money. It is a visual representation of India known across the world. Before undertaking a once-in-a-century project like this, the government should first hold a public consultation and carry out studies by experts to determine what is wrong with the Central Vista buildings and amenities, and what’s the best way to address the problems. We don’t need a Tughlaqi rebuilding of a new capital.
Here’s a nugget for Narendra Modi: Building a new capital in Delhi has often not brought great fortune for its rulers. The temporary office of the Viceroy of India in north Delhi, the Viceregal Lodge, today houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University. A signboard outside tells its history, how the Viceroy worked out of here while the Viceregal Palace, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan, was being built.
The new capital designed by Lutyens and Baker was ready in 1931, but the British didn’t get to enjoy it much, having to leave India 16 years later. The heading above this signboard reads “Dilli Dur Ast” — Delhi is still far. The words were spoken by Nizamuddin Auliya for another ruler of Delhi, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, who built Tughlaqabad, but didn’t get much time to enjoy it either.
Views are personal.