The last time I saw India Gate and its surroundings was on a rare sunny afternoon in December 2019. I was catching up with old friends in Khan Market and had planned to visit my favourite bookstore, New Bookland, run by Mirza Salim Baig on Janpath, Connaught Place.
After hopping into the auto rickshaw, I requested the driver to take a detour through India Gate before dropping me to my destination. The development plan for Central Vista had already been floated, creating much furore over the proposed changes to perhaps the only unifying commons in the city of New Delhi.
I was a bit surprised to find a large section of the architectural fraternity among the dissenters. As a fraternity — not as individuals — we are not known to public stances against issues of injustice that do not directly affect us, or what we perceive as ‘architectural heritage’.
Dissent from All Quarters — Even ‘Apolitical’ Architects
As the auto zoomed past the lawns and ponds of India Gate, I struggled to reconcile what I felt as an architect, with the nature of emotions that took over me as a person who was born and brought up in Delhi. There was a distinct clash between the two identities. I understood and empathised with the rage that the fraternity expressed at the proposed redevelopment plans, which is nothing but a vanity project and colossal waste of public money, especially now when the country is in extreme social, physical and economic distress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I felt a sigh of relief as a person privy to displacement and encroachment of the commons by the State in the name of development.
‘Now you know how it feels to have your land, identity and history taken away?’ I almost wanted to ask the many elite architects and urban planners shouting passionately on TV debates, but fell short of doing that.
I didn't want to trivialise the collective pain and anguish felt by them and others, nor did I want to evoke historical wrongs to right the hideous makeover of the Central Vista.
However, I feel now that we have lost the fight to save the Central Vista, it is important that these questions are redirected at the fraternity, not with the intent of questioning their moral underpinnings and failure to engage with the margins, but with the hope that we can learn from this failure and get on to the path of democratising development.
The Story of Nangal Dewat
In 2007, a village named Nangal Dewat in the vicinity of Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi was razed to make way for the expansion and redevelopment of the current airport into a swanky world-class facility. I was then in class 10, and I remember the incident causing a stir and fear in my home and the neighbourhood — another village named Samalka – just two kilometers away from Nangal Dewat. The residents of Nangal Dewat were fighting to save their village, fields and grazing lands — amounting to about 63 acres of land — since 1965, when the first acquisition was undertaken by the Airport Authority of India.
The residents ran from pillar to post, but their plight was shrouded by the glaring lights of a swanky new Terminal 3 which would put India at par with developed nations. We were so eager to arrive at the doors of development, that we didn’t bother looking back to pick up those who were not just merely left behind, but were pushed further to the margins, and crippled.
As per the 2001 census, Nangal Dewat village had a population of about 13,000 inhabitants. However, the Airports Authority of India, which was mandated by the judiciary to relocate the entire village, used the 1972 Census to allocate plots to displaced families, thereby leaving a number of families without homes or land.
According to a report published by NDTV, the residents who got land were relocated to an area near Vasant Kunj, devoid of proper water supply, drainage or connecting roads. Many families didn’t even get land, and were rendered homeless overnight. In 2017 — almost 10 years after the displacement — 59 Dalit families from Nangal Dewat, who didnt revieve an inch of land, protested outside the office of the Airports Authority of India in South Delhi, for over two months. The National Human Rights Commission intervened in the matter, but I could not find any reports of the aggrieved families receiving their promised land.
Environmental, Economical and Social Impact of Nangal Dewat ‘Development’
A six lane road now separates the airport from my old neighbourhood. The spectacle of airplanes can be seen landing and taking off from the runway, which once used to be farmland with a waterbody. My home, which was once surrounded by water bodies, farmlands and grazing lands, has been constricted within strict boundaries now, as the development slowly caves in.
The impact of the acquisition hasn't been just environmental, but also economical. A number of families were dairy farmers with herds of cows and buffaloes who lost their livelihoods when concrete was poured on their grazing lands. These dairy farmers, who once supplied fresh milk to others, now buy milk in packets from a Mother Dairy outlet.
The story of Nangal Dewat is the story of every largescale development project in India. From mines displacing adivasis, to farmers forced to give up their land to make expressways and flyovers, to bastis (slums) being razed to build luxury apartments — development in our country has always come at the cost of the marginalised.
Over the years, the checks and balances – like social, environmental and economic assessments, required by the authorities and agencies undertaking development projects — have proved to be utterly inadequate at safeguarding the interests of the marginalised communities, who neither have the resources nor the clout to beat the system. The plight of the residents of Nangal Dewat never quite captured the national imagination But even the battle — like that for stopping the Sardar Sarovar Dam — which was fought in the public domain by some of the most famous activists like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, supported by even mainstream celebrities like actor Aamir Khan, could not be won. It is because of an outdated and rigged system that is by, of, and for the people in power.
What Central Vista Disaster Highlights
The central government, upon whose mandate the Central Vista is being redeveloped by architect Bimal Patel, has been criticised heavily by several quarters, including the architectural and urban planning fraternity.
The government has flouted multiple norms — from the very inception of the project to its implementation — and this has continued through the devastating second wave of the pandemic. It has definitely modified and made the playbook more ruthless — but it was always there and was being used by the present regime’s predecessors too.
The revamping of the Central Vista is indeed a tragedy. It lays bare the fact that if one of most iconic commons of modern India can be so ruthlessly defaced at the country’s capital while the whole world is watching, what chance do those people have — whose voices are muzzled even before they can speak?
To avenge the tragedy of Central Vista, we must seek to democratise development, that which is ‘people centric’ and not for the people in power. And for that, we must actively engage in democratic movements in the country. No longer do we have the luxury to have opinions from our ‘neutral’ pedestals which absolve us from taking responsibility.
(Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and researcher based in Mumbai. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)