Delhi citizens recently woke up to the surprising news that the Centre had notified land-use changes
for the redevelopment of the iconic Central Vista in the capital, which will drastically alter the character of this heritage zone, stretching from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate.
The redevelopment plan includes the construction of a new Parliament House, new residences for the prime minister and vice president, and new buildings along Rajpath to house the vast army of Central government employees. A host of old buildings are to be demolished to make way for this “new capital” while large tracts of land earmarked for public use have been quietly “grabbed”.
Although the ambitious project, costing a whopping Rs 20,000 crore, has been on the Modi government’s agenda for several months now, it was the timing of the announcement that took everyone aback. It came when the country is in the midst of battling the COVID-19 pandemic and is staring at a serious economic crisis.
It was expected that the project would be put on hold, not necessarily because the opposition has said the plan be kept in abeyance, but because it entails a massive expenditure that can be put to better use at this juncture. It was felt that a rethink was also necessary because the current public health emergency has forced people to take a fresh look at their priorities and is set to change the way they live and work.
Sequestered at home because of the lockdown, professionals have been harnessing the latest technologies to work from the confines of their homes. The government too put technological tools to good use, ensuring that governance did not suffer because the concerned officials were not in their sarkari offices. There was all-round agreement that it was not necessary to concentrate babudom in one place to function effectively.
This is actually a good time to pause and think: Does Delhi really need 10 new massive concrete structures flanking both sides of Rajpath to accommodate Central government offices? Just as working remotely is being seen as a viable option, the Modi government is planning to pack this land with thousands of persons, which will put further pressure on the capital’s already overburdened civic amenities.
This is contrary to the 1985 National Capital Region Planning Board Act, which laid down that no new government building should come up in Delhi. It is instructive to recall that as far back as three decades ago, urban planners had foreseen that Delhi would collapse if the influx into the capital went unchecked. Successive governments over the years did attempt to implement this legislation and a number of public sector undertakings and ministries were shifted out. However, this process is now set to be reversed, with the promise of drastic consequences.
One explanation for pushing ahead with this project is that infrastructure development generates employment. But the ongoing pandemic, especially the failure of the public health facilities to cope with the increasing number of corona cases, has highlighted the limitations of investing in infrastructure projects at the cost of the health sector. PM Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, reporting a high rate of cases, merits special mention. Undoubtedly, it is vital for a village to be connected by a pucca road but it is equally important that it leads to a functioning and well-equipped primary health centre.
Then there are other issues without clarity. What will be the fate of heritage buildings like the National Archives, the National Museum, Jaipur House and Hyderabad House? There is some talk that these buildings, otherwise in fine fettle, are to be razed.
Many have also questioned the need for a new Parliament building. Then again, should the North and South Blocks, housing the home and external affairs ministries, be converted into museums? Several former bureaucrats, who have worked out of these iconic buildings, expressed concern over the government’s plans, pointing that these complexes are an “embodiment of the living history of our Republic” and have not reached expiry date.
Hardeep Puri, Union minister for housing and urban affairs, has justified these changes on the ground that these buildings are showing signs of age. However, architects and conservationists have repeatedly said that they can be renovated and modernised while retaining the outer facade. This has been done in other parts of the world.
Unfortunately, Puri’s ministry has studiously ignored such suggestions. In fact, there has been a conscious effort to keep the Central Vista plan under wraps and ensure that experts are denied any opportunity to give their inputs.
The secrecy with which the Centre is rushing through this project has convinced a section of people that it is essentially an attempt to erase history and part of the PM’s desire to leave behind his personal legacy. The Central Hall in Parliament will always be associated with Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech as he ushered in the birth of an independent nation. Similarly, the North and South Block offices are a constant reminder that the ministerial rooms here were once occupied by leaders of the old regimes.
Puri was quoted as saying that this redevelopment is the PM’s dream project. But surely it cannot be just one man’s dream. The citizens of Delhi should have a say in this. After all, they have a stake in this exercise as it is their space that is being encroached.
The writer is a senior journalist. The column will appear every fortnight