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Beyond the veils of secrecy, the Central Vista project is both the cause and effect of its own multiple failures

India Gate at dusk.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

After the 2019 fire that devastated Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, an international competition was held to generate the widest range of ideas for its roof rehabilitation. With 30,000 people voting on the new vision, a public ballot was used to finalise the new design as transparently as possible, and the design submitted by two Chinese architects, Zeyu Cai and Sibei Li, was selected.

Compare that to the manner in which the project for India’s new Parliament House, euphemistically called ‘a project that will become a symbol of national pride’, has been conducted. Cloaked in a veil of secrecy and mired in opaque processes, the project sailed through mandatory approvals and now even the tender for construction has been awarded.

Artist’s impressions of the proposed redevelopment of Central Vista

Artist’s impressions of the proposed redevelopment of Central Vista   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What most people don’t remember is that in 2008, the Delhi Government, in collaboration with Intach, began work on a detailed dossier to earn the prestigious Imperial Capital Cities status from UNESCO. The dossier was submitted to UNESCO in 2012. However, when the time came for the final consideration in 2015, the government abruptly withdrew the application.

While conservationists were left bewildered at the government’s about face, the real reason soon became clear. If the status had been granted at the time, it would have frozen all future development in the Central Vista zone, effectively preventing the government from unlocking the huge potential of this priceless real estate.

Although the formal proposal for the revamp of the Vista and the project to build a new Parliament House came only in 2019, the Central government has been working behind closed doors from 2015 onwards. The first hint of the interventions only became known when the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) issued invitations to architects to submit financial and design bids for the proposed work in early September. The tender process was rushed through with a speed that is seldom seen in government work.

No information

Within six weeks of inviting bids (Sept 2, 2019), the tender was finalised on October 18, 2019. The criteria for eligibility disqualified firms below a certain fixed turnover, leaving only a handful of multinational and engineering companies to compete.

Artist’s impressions of the proposed redevelopment of Central Vista

Artist’s impressions of the proposed redevelopment of Central Vista   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Six bids were received, with each architect making a closed-door presentation to a select jury; eventually the project was awarded to HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd. of Ahmedabad with an architectural fee of nearly ₹230 crore. The deadline for the completion of Parliament House was fixed for March 2022, in time to mark the 75th year of independence, and the start of Parliament’s monsoon session.

In a project of national significance, the government felt it owed no explanation to the public for either the process followed, or the criteria for selection. No exhibition of the proposed buildings was held, no data revealed, no models or drawings displayed so that citizens may comprehend the full scope of such a monumental change proposed in the city’s most visible public space and a space of national significance.

The Central Vista, meanwhile, had already been accorded the highest Grade I heritage status by the Unified Building Bye-Laws of Delhi. Buildings with Grade I classification cannot be changed, and “no intervention can be made unless it is in the interest of strengthening and prolonging the life of the buildings”.

Any redevelopment or alteration would have to follow due processes of the Heritage Conservation Committee, a committee that can only act after inviting and answering objections from the public. Demolition is not considered in the heritage agenda.

Raisina Hill

Raisina Hill   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

However, to facilitate the large-scale demolitions proposed in the new Central Vista plan, the Heritage Conservation Committee made a distinction between pre-Independence and post-Independence buildings to redefine the status of ‘heritage’. Consequently, rock-solid post-independence constructions, built by Indian architects and engineers in the 60s, have been deprecatingly consigned to the hammer.

The distinction permitted the demolition and replacement of buildings like Krishi Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan and Rail Bhavan, in addition to the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Only the existing Parliament building, the North and South Blocks, and the National Archives were spared on account of their pre-Independence stature. No debate preceded the decision nor did an impartial expert committee assess what constituted heritage, whether colonial or modern. Nor indeed was there any public consultation or announcement. The Grade I heritage status, it seems, was meant only for paper.

Change in land use

Once these closed-door decisions had been made, it was a matter of bringing the project to life. And the first task was the change of land use. A public notice was issued by the Delhi Development Authority proposing changes in December 2019, which, in effect, asked that the use of public open spaces such as a district park and children’s play area be changed for use as government offices. Challenging this, a Public Interest Petition — Rajeev Suri vs. the Union of India — was filed in the Delhi High Court in March 2020, stating that the land use change was illegal and violated Article 21 of the Constitution because it deprived citizens of their legitimate right to open green spaces. A second petition was filed by LokPATH, a citizen’s group that challenged the manner in which a public project of this scale was being conducted; yet another was filed regarding violations of the heritage status of Central Vista by a group headed by architect A.G.K Menon. The petitions were transferred to the Supreme Court and are now in the apex court’s domain.

Parliament House

Parliament House   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Still, given the project’s high priority, the wheels of approvals continued to turn despite the country being under lockdown. On April 22, the new Parliament building was granted environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change. Without an environmental impact study, and despite over 1,200 recorded objections raised by citizens, the Central Vista Committee headed by the CPWD — despite the conflict of interest — issued a ‘No Objection’ certificate.

A CPWD tender was hastily pushed through in a wholly opaque selection process. Although the matter is still sub judice and hearings are ongoing, the tendered project has already been awarded to Tata Projects Ltd with a 21-month construction deadline.

It is disturbing but telling that a project of the scale, magnitude, public expense and national significance of the Central Vista can cruise through the strictest of constitutional guidelines, heritage laws, land use and environmental regulations, and city bye-laws, all in the time frame of a few months. Beyond the misappropriation of public funds and violations of statuary regulations, what does this say about the structure of public governance and the quality of life generated by such actions?

Consider something else. When a public space has accrued through a slow additive process, with only a narrow-minded protection strategy and no future planning projection, perhaps the history of the Central Vista then is itself flawed.

An aerial view of the Parliament and adjoining government buildings that comprise Central Vista

An aerial view of the Parliament and adjoining government buildings that comprise Central Vista   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The original layout was formed from the vision of British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who combined institutions of governance with those of culture and the arts in a version of European Classicism that was spread along the broad three-kilometre sunny stretch of India Gate.

Faceless modernism

A faceless modernism came subsequently when an independent country needed to add departmental bureaucracy to the mix — what was referred to as ‘government-style bhawans’. In 1986, an international competition for the design of IGNCA was called, to fill the gaping hole across the National Archives and create a comprehensive cultural centre for the city. Only a third of that winning scheme was realised: the arts centre today is an incomplete residue of old barracks, a mud structure, and the partial granite addition.

Across from IGNCA sits the new External Affairs headquarters, which in the Lutyens-Baker plan was designated for cultural activities. Designed and completed in 1995, the MEA project began as an architectural competition but was summarily dismissed by the then External Affairs minister and awarded to the CPWD. The architecture is in the PWD formula — a mix of sandstone and glass with a smattering of domes and arches.

Given these piecemeal additions, the Central Vista has become not just a work in progress, but a work in incoherence. Thankfully, the place has remained free of the monolithic visions of Mussolini’s New Rome and Speer’s Berlin, the architectural gigantism and grim territorial finality of which make public life a monument rather than a space.

The Vista’s most obvious architectural relative remains the Washington Mall, which in its last half a century has added a range of art galleries, museums and cultural institutions, becoming the most visible public space in the American capital. The Indian version — half baked, incomplete, jaded and unkempt, part-maidan, part-building — has at least so far remained true to the ways of Indian governance.

In the final analysis, beyond the bickering and the lawsuits, the hasty sanctions and approvals, the Central Vista project is both the cause and effect of its own multiple failures.

On the one hand, a preservationist view places a protectionist stranglehold on the site, forbidding a change of thinking; on the other is a professional imperative that demands a calculated display of correctness in the practice of public architecture. In the long perspective, however, the two still leave a great deal unsaid.

Architectural future

How does a country, unsteady in democratic principles and lacking blueprints of development, ensure a visible architectural future for itself? The concern for expressing the independence of institutions without their actual practice of autonomy, the apologetic insertions of culture in a largely bureaucratic mix, and the continual harking back to some selective aspects of urban history, only demonstrate the futility of the ideas expressed — tentative, incomplete, unmade and so, always unfulfilled.

A passive society on the lookout for convenient symbols will continue to recall the great democratic stage sets of ancient Greece and Rome. Lutyens alluded to them in architectural forms that were British and regal, personalised to his own interpretation. The India of our time requires urban nourishment that may not be similarly embalmed in formal institutions, but that encapsulates art and music and history and beauty in a new and vivid experience. When the real city is fast becoming a place of temporal migratory displacement, the need to step outside the formalism of static architecture is an essential and altogether new resolve.

Sadly, when change is invoked for its own sake; when symbols are called into convenient play without rationale, unaffected by the logistics of finance or need-based design, then designs follow neither the demands of public spaces nor the grim realities of annual budgets and global pandemics but set a course of their own pyrrhic making. The logic of their creation is fuelled by private nationalism, not public desire. It is here that the Central Vista project becomes a venture in self-doubt.

The writer is an architect and sculptor. His recent book Delirious City is a satire on urban life.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 1:42:31 AM |

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