Parliament Building, a heritage edifice that is considered a touchstone of India’s democracy and diversity, is getting old. The signs of ageing are competing with the telltale marks of neglect — a stone tile that has come undone, a fragment broken off the roof, lingering foul smell in some corners, a cable curled around a piece of history, and blatant occupation of space.
And when the occupants of the building need more room, they create it. The men in uniform who should protect it, inadvertently damage it. As for the common man, whose fate is partially decided within the fortified sandstone building, the edifice remains an enigma that can only be marvelled at from afar.
The building itself stands as a timekeeper, carefully shielding history. As age catches up with the monument, there is a clamour for resuscitating and restoring this remnant of India’s historic past. There’s unanimity on that count, but will Parliament continue to function out of the building that Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker designed, or will there be a new address for our Members of Parliament?
“We badly need a new parliament building. This one simply isn’t functional and is outdated,” says Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development and the MP from Andhra Pradesh.
Biju Janata Dal MP from Kendrapara, Odisha, Baijayant Panda, too agrees that there is a need for creating more space. “The needs and requirements have changed dramatically. The present structure was built in the pre-Independence period, when there was no real democracy, and representatives weren’t fully empowered. Today’s representatives need offices and staff (as is the case in any country), for which new facilities must be built,” he says.
The first priority should be to have Parliament function in a building that’s safe, Mr. Panda says, but affirms that efforts must be made to conserve the existing structure. “The existing structure must, of course, be preserved properly, and there’s no harm in using it as a museum; that is widely accepted as a means of protecting and conserving heritage structures.”
However, the proposal to shift the seat of democracy doesn’t seem to go down well with many people. They are interested in continuing their alliance with the building, where the nation, at the stroke of midnight, announced its tryst with destiny.
“The Parliament building is one of the classics of Indian architecture, and in my view, should be preserved for use as our Parliament. If structural strengthening is necessary, such work can easily be undertaken during parliamentary recesses. The enormous value of our architectural heritage — of feeling one is sitting in the very chambers graced by giants like Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Ambedkar and Sardar Patel — is an indispensable part of our parliamentary traditions, and shouldn’t be discarded lightly,” says Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram.
The Central Public Works Department, which looks after the maintenance of Parliament building, recently undertook an inspection, and drew up a list of unauthorised constructions, additions to the original design, and a host of alterations that are threatening its structural stability.
The CPWD gave the owner of the building, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, a list of corrections that should be made. “We have been cautioning against encroachments. During the years, there has been rampant occupation of space, offices have been built where there should have been open spaces, staircases have nooks that are being occupied by office staff, and a canteen was being run till recently, which caused a lot of damage, and even exposed the building to the threat of fire,” said an official.
The deteriorating condition of the heritage building has sounded an alarm bell. But most MPs believe there is reason enough to allow Parliament to function from the existing building. To meet the growing demand for space, there are alternatives.
“We don’t really need another Parliament building. The people who are suggesting that we need a new building are mistaken. How old are Parliament buildings in Britain and the United States? Our building has been persistently misused. This is part of our tradition and history, and as the oldest member of Parliament, I will protest and oppose any move to bring it down or shift its seat,” says CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta, MP from Ghatal in West Bengal.
The need for more space can be met by moving out offices to new buildings, says Ajay Maken, MP from New Delhi and the current Sports Minister. “We already have an annexe. We can expand that. Some offices can move there. As far as the seat of Parliament is concerned, however, we should continue to use the existing building. It is a heritage marvel, and hence needs to be protected. The feeling that envelops you when you step inside is incredible. You cannot recreate that feeling in a brand new building.”
And with the House seemingly divided on the issue of a new address, the old, but magnificent Parliament building awaits a revival.