(This article was originally published on 4 March 2020. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives in the backdrop of Supreme Court’s scheduled verdict on several petitions that challenge the redevelopment of New Delhi's Central Vista area on Tuesday, 5 January.)
A new Parliament, demolition of iconic structures like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), a Rajpath which isn’t fully accessible to the public – PM Modi’s ambitious Central Vista redevelopment project is set to change the landscape of Delhi.
But the Central Vista revamp is not just a project about Delhi. It aims to redevelop the 3 km stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in Lutyens’ Delhi – the heart of India’s political power. Does India need a Central Vista redevelopment? Is the vision of the redevelopment, as envisaged by Ahmedabad-based firm HCP Design, aligned with what the planners of Delhi originally wanted for the city?
The Quint spoke to Narayan Moorthy, a Delhi-based architect and part of Lokpath India, a citizens’ collective which includes architects, urban planners, environmentalists and social activists.
Moorthy argues that the proposed Central Vista redevelopment might not be a good idea. Here’s why.
1. Decentralisation: “Govt Buildings Shouldn’t Be in the Heart of the City”
Delhi is a planned city. In 1912, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were given the task of designing a new capital for the British Raj, or the colonial government in India. This was when Central Vista, as we now know it, came into being. This included a wide, central avenue called Kingsway (now known as Rajpath), Queensway (now known as Janpath), Viceroy’s residence (now Rashtrapati Bhawan), North and South Block, and the Princes’ Palaces.
In 1962, a master plan of the city was prepared by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Under this master plan, additional changes were made to the Central Vista in keeping with the demands of a post-Independent India.
But one thing was clear in the master plan of 1962 – the idea that government offices should be spread across the city, and not just in one place. This is the principle of decentralisation. Moorthy says,
“Decentralisation is a widely accepted principle the world over. So just like Beijing is being cleared of all government offices which are moving to another purpose-built city. In the same manner, even Indian planners since the 1960s, have been talking about how government buildings don’t need to be built in the center of town anymore.”
However, the 2020 Central Vista redevelopment proposes to bring all government offices to the Central Secretariat — the opposite of decentralisation. What’s the solution then? To build new cities, by shifting out government offices away from the city. Moorthy says,
“Along with government buildings comes staff, cars, plenty of movement and people visiting those government offices. A better way to seed your new cities – like the Jewar Airport (in Greater Noida) which is now being built – is to take government buildings there. You can form a nucleus around which a city can be built.”
2. Public Right: “A Cultural Hub Which Belongs to the Public”
Lutyens had designed a unique cultural crossing in Delhi. Writing in The Indian Express, historian Narayani Gupta explains, “His (Lutyens’) plan of 1913 included a cultural ensemble at the Queensway/Janpath crossing. Four complexes were to be built — the Imperial Record Office, the Antiquities Museum, an Ethnological Museum and the Imperial Library.”
According to the original design, only the Imperial Record Office (now known as National Archives) and the National Museum were built. But over the years, with the building of IGNCA, the Janpath crossing has eventually become a cultural and intellectual hub in the city.
With the proposed Central Vista redevelopment, this public space is in peril. Talking about the principle of socio-cultural use of the city, Moorthy says,
“Since the 1960s, the master plan has recognised the Central Vista as belonging to the public. The plan took away some 2/3rd of the Rajpath and the whole circle of the C-hexagon and converted that to socio-cultural use. That would mean public buildings of the nature of theatres, galleries, museums. There seems to be no reason why we need to abdicate that responsibility today.”
In fact, under the new Central Vista project, as much as 80 acres of land which is currently available for use by public will be lost.
3. Heritage: “Parliament Has Memories of India”
The biggest change under the proposed Central Vista redevelopment project is that of a new Parliament. The new Parliament will be a triangular structure, built on 13 acres of land in the existing Parliament complex. It will seat 1,350 MPs for a joint Parliament session. What of the old Parliament?
According to the pitch video by HCP Design, the old Parliament building might be converted into a museum. But why abandon the old Parliament building and dismiss its significance to India’s history, questions Moorthy. He says,
“In the building of this new Parliament, to an extent you are abandoning the old Parliament. The old Parliament is not just heritage, because it’s a heap of bricks and carved stones. It is heritage because it embodies memories of this country. Our Constitution was written there. Some of the people who we hold in the highest esteem like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose spoke there. So, to abandon the building, or convert it into a museum, is not a valid use for a building which is a memorable one for India.”