In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition from several experts and leaders, including Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand Central Vista project in New Delhi has coalesced around the view that it should be suspended, and the budget re-allocated for more pressing and urgent health requirements. Suspending the project also offers the opportunity to re-evaluate the proposal from an architectural and urban design perspective, because it was justified largely on those grounds.
The project has never been subjected to thorough public scrutiny. In fact, it veils insidious political agendas, dangerous environmental and procedural compromises, and an unconscionable usurping of public spaces for government use. Not least, it is the banal, militaristic architecture and urban design that mutilates a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. It is an urban harakiri.
The Modi government is, however, obdurate and proceeding with manic speed on this suicidal mission. All objections will be addressed, it says.
Where are the studies?
Today, seven months into the project, the cynical nature of the Modi government’s assurances is apparent. In juridical terms, the government has substituted ‘rule of law’ with ‘rule by law’. A complicit bureaucracy and a compliant judiciary enable the project proponent to alter the Master Plan for Delhi 2021 to suit the proposed revamp.
Development control norms are being enhanced by permitting the use of Transport Oriented Development (TOD) incentives that are normally offered to increase ridership along Metro routes serving dense urban corridors. The result is that the quantum of construction proposed for the Central Vista project far exceeds the sustainable holding capacity of this Master Plan designated heritage precinct. All this, we are assured, is being done legally.
There are other egregious faults. Prudent administrative and fiscal practices dictate that large architectural and urban projects of this scale and scope should be backed by exhaustive management studies, heritage and environmental impact assessment studies, traffic and transport evaluations, detailed project reports and, of course, wide public consultation. There is no evidence that these prerequisites have been followed. Instead, what is evident is that the project is following a plan-as-you-go roadmap.
Against Delhi Master Plan objective
In architectural and urban design terms, it relies on self-serving assumptions without examining alternative options. It assumes, for example, that a new parliament building is required to cater to an expected increase in the number of parliamentarians, implicitly jettisoning the historical, cultural and psychological value of continuing to use the existing building as a potent symbol of Indian democracy.
In the United Kingdom, for example, with a roughly similar situation, its historic Parliament building is being carefully upgraded to accommodate the House of Commons, while a new House of Lords will be built in York as a political gesture to promote regional inclusivity.
Ad hoc perceptions appear to rationalise the construction of ten square doughnut-shaped, multi-storeyed buildings to accommodate all government offices, assuming that the consolidation of government offices in a centralised location will make for efficient functioning. Where are the management studies to justify this contrarian logic? It flies against the current worldwide trend to downscale government offices, decentralise and rely on digital technologies to promote efficient and effective delivery of government services. More importantly, it goes against the cardinal objective of the Delhi Master Plan 2021 to decentralise government offices.
Does cost justify benefit?
An important principle of prudent project management is the practice of frugality. Independent India has often practised this to a fault. Fiscal control and audit systems are deeply embedded in our governance psyche, yet this major project of the Modi government abandons their imperatives.
The purpose-built building for the Ministry of External Affairs, completed in 2010, will be demolished and it will now function from one of the square doughnuts. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) building, completed in 2002, will also be demolished and rebuilt at another site, to make way for three square doughnuts. The National Museum will be torn down and its collection rehoused in North and South Blocks. Vigyan Bhawan will be demolished and rebuilt at another site — all this to make place for the construction of more doughnuts. A new Prime Minister’s residence and office complex will replace the 7 Lok Kalyan Marg complex that was only recently refurbished at great cost to serve as a permanent residence for Prime Minister Modi.
Where are the cost-benefit analyses to support these extravagant decisions?
A new distancing formula
In addition to these shortcomings, the Modi government’s grand project also overlooks one of the most important urban design characteristics of Central Vista, which is that after Independence, this imperial symbol was transformed into a democratic public place.
While the trees, water channels and lawns of Central Vista are proposed to be retained, the ten square doughnut-shaped office towers flanking it will accommodate important government offices. It will inevitably be turned into a gated security zone like the plaza between North and South Blocks and the C-Hexagon, thus restricting its use and depriving thousands of local citizens of a popular leisure area.
At a time when India is confronting serious economic problems, reinforced by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the clamour to suspend such profligacy is certainly justified, not only in economic terms but on moral and ethical grounds as well. But from an architectural and urban design perspective, should the Rs 20,000 crore, which the Central Vista revamp project is estimated to cost, be squandered to commit urban harakiri and make a banal lifestyle statement? No, the plan should be scrapped.
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.