Central Vista Project Off the Ground Amidst Opposition Squeaks and Court Demur
The Beginning of the End of Delhi As We Know It
NEW DELHI: The architectural community in the city watches in horror as the Prime Minister rides roughshod over proprietary and due procedure to ram a project through the heart of Delhi.
Disaster in the making, that is what they describe the Central Vista project, the ambitious redevelopment plan for Lutyens Delhi which will result in demolition of the entire Lutyens zone as one knows it.
The foundation for this ill-conceived project was laid by PM Narendra Modi on December 10, in complete disregard of the fact that its legality has been challenged in the Supreme Court which has reserved its judgment after hearing all petitions.
In what has become his signature style by now PM Modi performed the bhoomipujan for the proposed new Parliament building on December 10, 2020. The new Parliament building, which is the first building to be taken up in the Central Vista project, is slated to be completed by 2022, at a whopping cost of Rs 971 crores. Spread over an area of 64,500 square metre, it will make space for seating 888 Lok Sabha and 384 Rajya Sabha members, besides a grand Constitution Hall which will supposedly showcase India’s democratic heritage.
This heralds the beginning of a humongous project in Delhi which seeks to raze to ground all major government buildings in the NDMC area, like Rail Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Shram Shakti Bhawan, Sena Bhawan, Vayu Bhawan and Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan.
These bhawans house various ministries and government departments. The plan is to demolish them, even though some of them are not even a decade old, and build a new integrated secretariat complex in their place. Cultural spaces like the National Museum and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts are also in the list facing the bulldozer.
The project envisages redevelopment of the entire three kilometer area starting from Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate and converting it into an area which is predominantly used only for housing government offices, besides new residences for the prime minister and the vice president.
The entire project is shrouded in such secrecy that nothing is known as to what would happen to the India Gate lawns, which are exclusively public spaces with people having free access to them. Or to the National Museum or IGNCA, which come under the semi-public spaces category.
The project cost, though no official figures are available yet, is in the realm of Rs 20,000 crore of hard earned public money and is slated to be completed by 2024, in time for the next general election.
What has caused consternation is the fact that a project of such massive scale and importance, has been rushed through with such speed that even procedural requirements like public consultations, or public awareness drives through seminars, or exhibitions, have been given the go by, with the result that there is no official information available in the public domain. No doubt, a lot has been written in the social media, but officially, not much has been disclosed.
Though closed door consultations had begun in 2015 itself, the actual process started on September 2, 2019 when the design and financial bids for the project were invited. The eligibility criteria was such that only six big agencies qualified.
In just a span of six weeks, on October 18, 2019, the bids were finalized and Ahmedabad based firm, HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd was selected. Incidentally, it is the same firm which has executed the Sabarmati Riverfront Project in Ahmedabad and is also doing the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project in Varanasi.
Alarm bells actually rang when in December 2019, Delhi Development Authority announced the land use change policy, converting the ratio of 60:40 for public and semi public:government, to 5:95 ( five for public and semi public and 95 percent for government use). A notice to this effect was issued that public spaces in use for public parks and children play areas would now be used for government purposes.
It was then that the first PIL was filed by Rajiv Suri in March 2020, stating that this was a violation of citizen’s right to free open spaces under Article 21. LokPATH, a citizen’s group filed another PIL challenging the procedure adopted for such a massive project, saying due process has not been followed. Noted architect AGK Menon and few others filed another petition saying the project violated the heritage status of Central Vista.
But even as the Supreme Court was seized with the matter, on April 22, 2020, when the entire country was struggling with a corona induced lockdown, the Ministry of Environment and Forest granted environmental clearance to the project. Without holding any environmental impact assessment or public consultation and disregarding the fact that over 1200 objections had been filed. In September 2020, Tata Projects Ltd bagged the contract to build the new Parliament building, even as the Supreme Court was hearing the matter. The court reserved its judgement on November 5, 2020.
But on December 5, 2020, without even waiting for the SC to deliver its judgement, speaker Om Birla announced that the foundation laying ceremony of the new parliament building would be performed on December 10, with the prime minister himself doing the bhoomipujan. He extended a public invitation to the prime minister.
Irked by this announcement, the Supreme Court took suo moto notice of the issue and on December 7, 2020, a three-judge bench, headed by Justice A M Khanwilkar, directed the government not to start any construction, demolition or cut trees. But it allowed the foundation laying and other paper works related to the project. The question, however, is that with the prime minister having performed the foundation laying rituals, will it not impinge on the SC verdict?
Several architects who spoke to this writer expressed their displeasure over the manner in which the project has been steamrolled. “ This is a scandal in the making,” said one scholar-architect, while another dubbed it as a “ disasterm,akin to Muhammad Bin Tughlak’s disastrous shifting of his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in 14th century.”
Interestingly, yet another initiative by prime minister Modi, demonetization, has shades of Muhammad Bin Tughlak’s idiosyncrasy. Like Modi’s sudden demonetization move rendering thousands of crores of money in 1000 and 500 rupee currency notes to rubbish, Tughlak had introduced representative currency, called Tanka, which had also turned disastrous, ruining his kingdom, and he had to withdraw it only after eight days.
Though the prime minister , after doing the bhoomipujan, gave a sermon on India’s democratic heritage, describing the new parliament building as a testament of Atmanirbhar Bharat, which reflects the dreams and aspirations of a new India, the opposition parties have criticized the move. Accusing PM Modi of hypocrisy, they said his track record suggested he was anti-democratic and dictatorial.
Congress party’s spokesman Randeep Surjewala tweeted “Dear Prime Minister, Parliament is not mortar & stones. It envisions democracy, it imbibes Constitution, it is economic-political-social equality, It is compassion & camaraderie. It is aspirations of 130 crore Indians. What would a building built upon trampling of these values represent?”
Surjewala added: “Modi ji, history will record that when lakhs of farmers were fighting on the streets for their rights, you were building a palace for yourself in the garb of the Central Vista project. In a democracy, power is not for fulfilling personal whims but a medium of public service and welfare.”
Rahul Gandhi also tweeted : “The Modi government is snatching the fundamental rights of the poor. This is a crime against humanity. We will have to honour the rights of every section of the society for a better future for India.”
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram said the foundation for a new Parliament building was laid on the ruins of a liberal democracy.
CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury also was scathing in his attack. He said: “Mr Modi is giving a moral lecture on the ‘values’ & ‘culture’ of democracy while in practice destroying democracy mercilessly, assaulting all dissent & preventing our youth from even choosing their life partners: diabolic doublespeak.”