(This article was originally published on 26 May, 2020 and is being republished 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.)
Every now and then, the concept of heritage conservation gets embroiled in debate – one which is, on the one hand, a journey to self discovery, and on the other hand, concerns the motives of the elected custodians of our heritage .The results lay bare the real intentions of the empowered, and their political ambitions.
Our heritage is but a part and parcel of our history and everyday life. The built heritage of a city exemplifies the very life of the citizens. The entire Central Vista of New Delhi is poised for a major change. It has been noted by many experts that the proposals are massive, mindless, unnecessary, and of the nature of an irreversible transformation.
The entire process of the re-modelling of this icon of Indian democracy has been undemocratically shrouded in mystery. Yet, the national outrage, the protests and the pleas to stop this seem to have had little effect on the State.
A Govt Sensitive to Its People Would Recognise & Respect ‘Emotional Symbols’
Architects, urban designers, town-planners, environmentalists, artists and virtually all concerned citizens are aghast at the brazen insensitivity and undue urgency displayed by the State to implement the changes.
Even though not yet officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Central Vista complex meets the core requirements of the site being “a place of either cultural or physical significance”.
Countries make a nominal adjustment to define heritage, holding on to the basic premise that any element, natural or manmade, that deserves to be conserved, must be conserved for posterity. States lay down rules and regulations to ensure compliance. Cities, states and countries exchange information on how the whole process can be made more effective.
Any government, sensitive to the disposition of its citizens, would respect the indicators of emotional quotient of the site and /or commitment to the benefit of the citizens before embarking on any such project. This debate assumes importance when you consider the frugality (and now the timing) of the arguments put up in support of this massive changeover
The scheme of transformation vaguely describes (in no definite white paper) the removal of two fairly recent buildings – the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and JLN Bhavan of the MEA, the National Museum building, the Vigyan Bhavan, and at least four other Bhavans to make room for towers that increase the built-up area several hundred times.
The tragedy is that not only are established rules and norms being flouted (such as specific stipulations of the Master Plan of Delhi 2021– the ban imposed by the NCR board on adding any government office space within Delhi, the obtaining proper environmental clearances etc), but these are being systematically violated with the help of an ‘obliging’ judiciary ensuring ‘proper procedure’ at all stages – at least on paper.
- The entire process of the re-modelling of this icon of Indian democracy – the Central Vista – has been undemocratically shrouded in mystery.
- Our heritage is but a part and parcel of our history and everyday life.
- Milking the coronavirus opportunity, the State narrative seems to have been steered in the direction of ‘local’– the notion of heritage conservation being linked to the idea of ‘nationalism’.
- Conservation is a very emotive issue. Buildings and precincts evoke strong emotions.
- In its myopic vision for the future of this complex, this wonderful civic space is being taken away from the masses to be packed and presented, mainly, if not exclusively, for the use of an already-bloated bureaucracy.
Central Vista Of New Delhi – A ‘People’s Place’
Harnessing the opportunity offered by the coronavirus crisis, the State narrative seems to have been steered in the direction of ‘local’– the notion of heritage conservation is linked to the idea of ‘nationalism’.
A nation is a collective identity of peoples united under different circumstances – some coming together as an ethnic group, others as a reaction to the ouster of the oppressive regime which has exploited it for a period of time.
India, as we understand it today, is manifest in the words of Pandit Nehru: “... At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India shall awake to life and freedom…” The India of 14 August 1947 – this is the India that we the people recognise and relate to.
The Central Vista of Delhi, though created under completely different circumstances by a foreign power, can rightfully claim its place in the cultural history of the country as a ‘People’s Place’.
It proudly presents to the world the equivalent of similar spaces in Beijing; Moscow; Washington, DC; and other cities. Ironically, this is the very stage on which India showcases its rise in global hierarchy, year after year, on every 26 January. On most other days the lawns of the Rajpath, the cool water bodies, the tree shade play host to scores of residents from all over the city, who find respite from their crammed living conditions.
Price of Central Vista ‘Facelift’: 100 Acres of Land To Be Taken Away From Public Access & Thousands of Trees To Be Lost
Conservation is a very emotive issue. Buildings and precincts evoke strong emotions. A nation’s heritage defines its history and inspires its future. Many countries of the world today were subjugated by ‘foreign’ powers. The Central Vista complex along with its world-famous counterparts like the Champs-Élysées of Paris, and the Mall of Washington, DC, signify power. Larger than life, grand yet welcoming. One has to tread very cautiously if you wish to tinker with these emotional symbols.
The entire Central Vista complex makeover, which includes the moving of the residence of the PMO to this site, is touted as a dream project of the prime minister.
In its myopic vision for the future of this complex, this wonderful civic space is being taken away from the masses to be packed and presented, mainly, if not exclusively, for the use of an already-bloated bureaucracy.
It is unfortunate that the government is stonewalling the opposition to the unraveling of the original fabric of a world-class built heritage of the Central Vista, knowing fully well the extent of the collateral damage – involving about 100 acres of land being taken away from public access and thousands of fully grown trees to be lost – besides the dreadful assurance of launching us straight into an arena modelled on commercial malls and sterile concrete office blocks, out of the reach of most citizens.
Central Vista ‘Makeover’: Involve the People, Respect the Environment
The subjugation in our spirit and a public show of ‘nationalism’ finds profound relief in creating monumental statues and changing the names of streets and cities. And tinkering with precinct and civic spaces to instil its own ideas of grandeur.
As a nation we fall woefully short here.
We seem to have learnt nothing from the historic tragedies involving the demolition of the World Trade Towers, the Babri Masjid, the attack on the Taj hotel – and countless such excesses all over the world. The symbolism of the space is far more provocative than the brick and mortar put together in the form of the buildings defining the same .
Today, this new civic design catastrophe, this misplaced fantasy of the State in revamping of the Central Vista, has galvanised all right-thinking people to demand answers. The government must make the proposal public.
Involve the people. Respect the environment. Listen to the voice of the people.
A culture that takes solace in the misplaced belief, that by removing or altering the markers of history the people would feel more liberated, has not been fully released from the burden of the bondage of history and surely has misplaced notions of patriotism.
Why We Must Conserve What We Have Inherited
For a country like India facing among the toughest of economic challenges, how does one justify the Rs 20,000-crore budget (likely to grow more) for this project?
This is hardly a time to indulge in fantasies guided by dreams.
That brings us back to the ‘collective’ notion of heritage and the sense of place. In a democratic system – especially like in India – that has wrested its freedom from a foreign power by use of ‘ahimsa’, perceptions about spaces with a historical context will vary.
The job of conserving the ancient monuments and spaces will be rendered much simpler if we have, and display the courage to, accept the historic events as markers of our heritage, rather than misplaced notions of immortality associated with the leader who has a marked shelf life.
This is a reason in itself to proudly conserve what we have inherited.
Oscar Wilde put it well: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
The famous instruction of Sir George Birdwood to his architects at the time of designing the new capital – “New Delhi, like Rome must be built for eternity”– speaks the same language. This way, both the Cellular Jail of the Andaman Islands, and the Central Hall of Parliament, and the complete Central Vista complex of New Delhi, would have qualified for conservation – for our future generations to base their judgments upon.
(Kavas Kapadia is an architect and planner, and Former Dean of Studies ,Professor of Planning, School of Planning and Architecture. New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)