Unravelling the Tangled Knots of Central Vista Redevelopment

The proposed Central Vista redevelopment should be rolled back to allow national ideation and consultation. 

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
The proposed Central Vista redevelopment should be rolled back to allow national ideation and consultation. 
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(This article was originally published on 9 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.)

Reviewing the government’s proposal to redevelop the Central Vista of New Delhi as an exclusive government office zone – which includes a new Parliament as well as new residences for the PM and the Vice President – the whole issue seems still more tangled.

As a nationwide collective of concerned citizens from diverse walks of life, we have been examining this matter at great depth for the last few months. And given the paucity of information available to the public, we feel it is necessary to highlight various diverse and seemingly unconnected factors. These may seem like technical matters but need to be highlighted for the general understanding of the people of India.

To an extent, we feel even the government has not been fully apprised of the ramifications of this project by the bureaucrats and technocrats who may have devised this grandiose and unworkable project. It is not likely that any government would endanger its popularity through a scheme which will cause pain to many – and may seem doomed to fail.

Why Has Central Vista Revamp Disregarded These Concerns?

Since the very outset, the Central Vista redevelopment project has been remarkable for its sheer disregard of concerns. Here is a brief summary of some of these concerns.

  • The very undemocratic nature of both the conception and the execution of the proposed redevelopment, with no preceding public consultation. Even though the project involves the making of a new Parliament, there has been no consultation with the Parliament. No exhibitions of the various preceding studies have been used to inform this decision to redevelop and densify a very nationally critical area, whether it’s the drawings or the information on the proposed scheme .
  • The willful ignoring of various apt processes – including undermining societal and professional institutions that could have provided checks and balances as well as ignoring every established national and international precedent to find the best of the diverse perspectives possible for the design. This could have been done by opening up the ideation of the design of the Central Vista revamp to many, rather than through a very limited restrictive and inept tender.
  • Disregard for heritage, whether in the form of the built heritage of a nation, that has inherited its colonial legacy and built upon it as a proud democracy or the cultural heritage embodied in the various buildings at the epicentre of India’s polity. Like the priceless heritage of the contents of the National Archives, National Museum, The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and National Gallery of Modern Art. This disregard was seen in the initial proposal, but is still residual in the changed proposal after some drastic cutbacks due to citizen protests.
  • Contempt for natural heritage at this core green space which was bequeathed by the nation’s erstwhile colonial masters – including mature trees with dense, tall canopies, extensive urban grasslands, all supporting an incredible variety of flora and fauna.
  • Uncaring nature of this massive construction planned at the heart of an already polluted, traffic-choked, bursting-at-the-seams Delhi. Dust pollution from the massive excavations and later, construction activity; temporary water scarcity during construction and permanent indelible changes to the water table caused by the deep basements of the new buildings; the massive carbon footprint of the new development; the choking of traffic on the roads or for public transport; tens of thousands of construction workers pouring into the city’s centre every day; an additional 40,000 government employees choke the roads and the Metro for their daily commute to Delhi’s heart – all these factors threaten to throttle the city.
  • Sheer national waste of destroying the recently-built IGNCA and the even more recent Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan of the MEA only to replace them with new concrete behemoths instead of repurposing these fairly recent and large buildings to suit new purposes.
A view of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, as designed by Edwin Lutyens.
A view of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, as designed by Edwin Lutyens.
(Photo Courtesy: The Lutyens Trust)
  • Failure to cogently establish any need for this massive project which seeks to replace visible symbols of the India that preceded it, whether in colonial times or democratic. A project that ignores and negates the governments’s own stated maxims of “minimum government, maximum governance” and ideas evolved by the nation’s best thinkers like decentralisation of the city, or equity of the public commons. Large government office buildings and new residences for the PM and VP are planned to overshadow this core open public heart of Delhi, thus displacing the poor revellers from Old Delhi and East Delhi who currently throng this precinct in large numbers as the nearest and freely, easily accessible public open space.
  • Blatant usurpation of the place of the public at this core of India’s democracy. The complete reversal from what the nation’s planners have thought desirable since six decades by attempting to convert land reserved for socio-cultural buildings and open recreational green parks – thus both of very public use – into offices and residences. Of thrusting the IGNCA, one of the two really public buildings along the Rajpath (other than National Museum) into a much smaller and insignificant plot of land.

There has already been some degree of remarkable change to the proposed scheme since the societal pushback to the proposal began.

At the outset, two Grade 1 Heritage buildings and three Grade 2 ones were being demolished. Parliament (similarly Grade 1) was being irrevocably altered or abandoned as a museum. Now, all this has been rolled back.

It seems that Parliament will retain some parliamentary functions. There are other changes to the proposed design as well. The whole C-hexagon of the India Gate roundabout has been removed from the design, at least for now. This has saved four out of five heritage buildings, as well as reduced the environmental and traffic disruption to the city to some extent.

The National Archives is being left relatively untouched with only an impermissible building extension now proposed.

Right from the beginning of the project, major national bodies and guilds have written to the government outlining their concerns with the Central Vista redevelopment project – both with the process of selection of the design and the designer, as well as with the shape of the proposal as sketchily visible so far. However, no answers have been forthcoming to any of these.

File image of the current Parliament building in Delhi. 
File image of the current Parliament building in Delhi. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Why the Secrecy on Central Vista’s Proposed Redesign?

Instead of the CPWD who floated the tender, or the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs in whose remit this project falls, actually directly consulting its citizens or even representative bodies of citizens (despite public avowals by the said Minister of embarking on “town hall” type interactions by the government with the public), here’s what has been happening.

The project architect has been unleashed on a media and outreach blitz. Double-page spreads in mainstream newspapers carried oversimplified fuzzy pretty colour sketch views while the accompanying text glossed over many issues with the proposed redevelopment.

Like the obvious and foreseeable environmental impact, costs, its practicality, lack of tabling in the public domain of preceding studies establishing the need for these new buildings and details of experts consulted, if any.

The architect has also made presentations to select closed-door audiences in Delhi and Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, both were to fellow professionals, landscape architects and urban designers in very limited curated numbers in the first (with some people or bodies actually kept out!). Audiences also included students of the same college where the project architect is the director.

File image of architect Bimal Patel, who helms HCP Design. HCP Design has been awarded the redesign of the Central Vista project.
File image of architect Bimal Patel, who helms HCP Design. HCP Design has been awarded the redesign of the Central Vista project.
(Photo Courtesy: HCP Design)

Certain, very searching questions were asked there, but as anyone who has seen the videos can attest, very inadequate or high-handed replies were all that were forthcoming. The architect also made the same presentation in Mumbai on the sidelines of the Kala Ghoda festival to a slightly more representative audience (fortunately as least a few citizens for a change, among largely students of architecture) but even the questions there, we believe, were carefully curated with inconvenient ones left unanswered.

No doubt we will see more such one-sided presentations in other cities, but this begs the question of the valid demand of common citizens to be allowed into a public debate on this drastic re-imagining of a core national epicentre. And unfortunately, as visible from recent interviews to the press by the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, these presentations are being cloaked in the garb of “public consultations”.

DDA Notifying Change in Land Use

In another fairly negative recent development, the DDA sought to fulfill the mandate of the proposed redevelopment, by issuing a notice for the change of land use of the 100 odd acres, including 80 precious acres of land reserved since 1962 for public uses by government offices.

While thousands of citizens wrote objections in protest and some even approached the Delhi High Court for justice, the CPWD saw fit to further a matter still being deliberated in Court – by approaching the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry for Environment ( MoEFCC) for Environment Clearance as well as the Central Vists Committee ( CVC) for approval of the sub judice CLU!

Our institutional checks and balances stand decisively negated.

Nevertheless, it’s hoped that we, as a collective, and the society, are able to keep up this momentum of public discussion and debate – till the proposed Central Vista redevelopment project is wholly rolled back for the present to allow national ideation and consultation, as well as domain specific expert consultations.

(Narayan Moorthy is a Delhi-based architect who is a part of a citizens’ collective called Lokpath India. 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.)

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