1 June 2020 07:11 PM

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RETIRED CIVIL SERVANTS | 17 MAY, 2020

Nero Fiddles While Rome Burns - ‘Dear PM, Stop the Central Vista Project!’

Open letter


Honourable Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi
Honourable Housing and Urban Affairs Minister of India, Shri Hardeep Singh Puri


We are a group of retired civil servants belonging to the All-India and Central Services from all over India. As a group, we do not subscribe to any particular political ideology but focus upon issues that have a bearing upon the Indian Constitution and issues of democracy.

We are writing this letter to express our grave concerns about the Central Vista Redevelopment Project currently planned in the most iconic heritage precinct of New Delhi. The preliminaries for the execution of the first building among many in this area, viz. the new Parliament building have already been obtained as seen in the national news. This, despite widespread, and very relevant opposition from the public and innumerable flaws in the selection procedure.

India and its capital Delhi are the proud possessors of this remarkable, historical precinct, known as the Central Vista, built during the British Raj, but nurtured, savoured and celebrated largely in the post-Independence era. Any interventions to change this area would need to be mindful of this history. The Central Vista area has been accorded Grade 1 heritage status under the extant Unified Building Bye Laws of Delhi. Construction and redesign on the scale planned in the redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage nature of this precinct, and destroy it irrevocably.

The redevelopment planned will, moreover cause severe environmental damage. This precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the city, with its dense mature tree canopies serving as a repository of bio diversity and the vast lawns of the Vista as a watershed for the city between the Ridge and the Yamuna. Constructing a large number of multi-storeyed office buildings, with basements, in this open area will create congestion and irreversibly change and damage the environment. Delhi already suffers from enormous environmental pollution. To plan something which will increase this pollution many, many times, not merely during the construction phase but also subsequently, is clearly a thoughtless and irresponsible act.

A third purpose that the Central Vista serves at present is as a recreational space for the whole city. Families throng the area on summer nights to sit around in the open air and enjoy the occasional icecream – innocent and inexpensive pleasures which they will be deprived of once the Vista’s character undergoes a change. One must realise that open spaces which are gated or surrounded by government office buildings are not the same as public open spaces where citizens are free to carry out routine activities of recreation and celebration or even of peaceful protest. Governments hold public land in a fiduciary capacity and large scale changes based on flawed perceptions should not have place in a democratic country.

There is a great deal wrong with the conceptualization of the project. Rather than establishing the necessity of the project with sound prior studies on environmental and technical parameters, this project began, if reports are to be believed, because of a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky’, as well as with the thought of leaving a particular government and its leader’s impress on the architecture of Delhi. There was no Parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by any public consultation or expert review. Instead a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm in what was an extremely flawed process.

The selected architectural firm appears to have been given carte blanche to make whatever changes it wishes, with all government departments seemingly mandated to do whatever is required to enable the firm’s actions. The selection of the firm and the processes employed to do so leave a lot of questions unanswered. It is also pertinent to note that there has been no accessible explicit exhibition of the scheme drawings, data or preceding studies for domain experts or common citizens to understand what exactly is planned in this very important public space. This goes against all democratic norms.

One of the premises on which the proposal is founded is the construction of an all new Parliament adjoining the iconic old Parliament in anticipation of the delimitation, stating as a reason the supposedly antiquated nature of its present premises, which need renovation and updating. A larger parliament building to accommodate a larger number of MPs (in view of the increase in population) is itself questionable because the population is projected to decrease post 2061as borne out by the Economic Survey indicating declining fertility rates in several States. Moreover, constructing a second Parliament building in close proximity to the existing one would diminish the existing Parliament building and might even endanger its foundations. The land use of the area on which the new Parliament building is proposed to be constructed was changed by the DDA after conducting a perfunctory hearing into a very large number of objections made by the public.

Preliminary studies have shown that the existing Parliament can be repurposed to meet the requirement of expansion and modernization. Indeed, this is the norm for all heritage structures including Parliament buildings all over the world. Surely our Parliament deserves the same respect. No Heritage Assessment Analysis has been done for any of the valuable buildings proposed to be either demolished or re-purposed.

A premise on which the redevelopment of Central Vista is based, appears to be the necessity to concentrate offices of the Central Government in one place. This is against the basic tenets of the Master Plan of Delhi which stipulates that no new offices should be built in New Delhi and that efforts should be made to decongest it. It is also out of sync with the maxim of ‘less government, more governance’, which the present government had in its manifesto.

Though much of the plan is shrouded in secrecy, it is learnt that the proposal also calls for the demolition of four Bhawans built in the 1960s, the iconic National Museum, Vigyan Bhawan, the fairly recently built IGNCA, and the very new and expensive Ministry of External Affairs buildings. Other than the value, both monetary and symbolic embedded in these buildings, this flies in the face of the principles of conservation and the basic tenets of sustainability, Some of these buildings, moreover, and the National Archives to which additions impermissible as per extant rules are planned, are repositories of artefactual and documentary cultural heritage which would be gravely endangered in the large scale project so casually proposed.

Eminent professional bodies like the Council of Architecture (COA), the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the Institute of Urban Designers India (IUDI), and the Indian Society of Landscape Architects (ISOLA) have written numerous letters with sound and detailed advice on various aspects of the redesign plan to the Minister of Housing & Urban Affairs. Unfortunately, these letters have been ignored and even replies to these letters have not been forthcoming. If the institutions meant to safeguard the rights and well-being of people in a democratic country can be so arbitrarily ignored, can India still claim to be a democracy?

It is sad to note that approvals of empowered supervisory bodies like the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Vista Committee have been pushed through in great haste at meetings convened at short notice while the country is in lockdown due to the Covid 19 epidemic, and despite the absence of private members who expressed their inability to attend and advised waiting till the nation returned to normalcy. The clearances are being given despite the matters being sub judice. These bodies have, unfortunately, been reduced to mere rubber stamps with notes of dissent not even recorded.

Finally, in the post Covid 19 scenario, when enormous funds are required for strengthening the public health system, to provide sustenance to people and to rebuild the economy, taking up a proposal to redesign the entire Central Vista at a cost of at least Rs 20000 crores, a figure likely to escalate significantly, seems particularly irresponsible. It seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

We strongly believe that this project needs to be stopped forthwith for the multiple and complex reasons we have mentioned above. We appeal to the government to see the fallacy in going ahead with this project and to issue the necessary notifications forthwith to stop the work from going ahead.

STREAM


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