Central Vista project rides roughshod over heritage

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Construction under way as part of the Central Vista redevelopment project at Rajpath in New Delhi on May 7. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

The Modi government’s Rs.20,000-crore Central Vista redevelopment project, work on which proceeds apace despite the COVID-19 pandemic, has come in for widespread criticism owing to its lack of transparency and disregard for national heritage.

The capital city of India battles shortage of oxygen, medicines, vaccines, beds, ventilators, and finally, cremation and burial space. Hundreds are denied dignity in death, consigned to flames as they are in parking lots and pavements outside cremation grounds. In this grim scenario, it seems that the city’s history, too, is in the throes of death. Acres of land in Lutyens’ Delhi, from the India Gate circle towards Rajpath, as well as several linked roads, are being dug up and ransacked in a manner not seen in living memory, in order to construct a new Central Vista in time for India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations in 2022.

It may be that the old order is being replaced by the new, but as the Aligarh Muslim University historian Ali Nadeem Rezavi says, “We do not know what we stand to gain; what we do know is the history we stand to lose. The photographs coming in of bulldozers at work (on Rajpath) are unsettling. It is permanent destruction.”

The Central Vista redevelopment project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream worth Rs.20,000 crore, envisages a new triangular Parliament building with a common Central Secretariat, the revamping of the three-kilometre-long Rajpath from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate, besides new residences for the Prime Minister and the Vice President. The project has been categorised as an “essential service”, enabling work to go on uninterrupted.

The project aims to bridge the gap, literally, between the Ministries, gather all bureaucrats under one roof, give our Parliamentarians a fancy new address, and a hang-out zone. Of course, it would give our Prime Minister a shining new address worth Rs.1,300 crore too. Work on the upcoming “power corridor” has not only uprooted trees that pre-date the foundation of Lutyens’ Delhi in 1911, but will involve the shifting of institutions such as the National Museum, whose treasures go beyond money. A similar fate awaits various bodies of art and culture, and those not celebrated simply because they are adjuncts, not independent monuments.

City of monuments

Khushwant Singh wrote in his enchanting Delhi: A Portrait: “Delhi is history. Delhi is monuments. Delhi’s monuments are tablets on which history is written…. Delhi has 1,300 monuments which have been officially declared as being of historical importance. It has many more which are only ‘protected’ from further destruction. And there are others which though they neither qualify as ‘historic’ or ‘protected’ are equally fascinating.” It is such monuments that are at risk of being demolished by the pickaxes of labourers, unaware of what they are destroying for a day’s wage. The area is also home to the grave of the former President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, as well as a mosque that dates back to the days of the foundation of New Delhi.

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Rezavi said: “The [Central Vista] area is a part of our heritage. Whether it is the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhavan or any of those structures associated with that up to India Gate, [they] are all national heritage. There is a rule which governs all national heritage. All monuments which are of national importance and over a hundred years old have to be maintained as they are without any change in their perspective. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, amended in 2010, specifies that any monument, any tumulous, any construction, any de-construction, anything which is 100 years old, has to be maintained as such. It does not apply only to independent monuments, it applies to a tumulous, a mound, a depression, a minaret or a building with national importance with respect to its artistic, cultural or heritage value. It has to be maintained for its actual purpose. I am not concerned with the PM’s residence, underground or otherwise, but with Lutyens’ Delhi, which should be maintained as such. When I talk of hundred-year-old monuments, New Delhi’s monuments have to be counted from 1911 when the construction started. It is national heritage.”

On the shifting of the National Museum, Rezavi pointed out: “Nowhere in the world has such a move has ever been made. There are thousands of priceless artefacts. Imagine moving them from one place to another; first they would have to be temporarily shifted, then shifted again to the new museum. There will be destruction twice over. It has never been attempted anywhere in the world. We cannot even count the thousands of things in the attics which are being researched upon. What will happen to them? Whether Louvre museum or any other museum, like Victoria and Albert museum, no attempt was made to shift any of the artefacts. It is worse than a Tughlaq firman [diktat].”

Indeed, the project has reminded many of the 14th century Delhi sultan Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s ill-conceived plan to shift his capital to Daulatabad. Others point out that in the past, too, many rulers and Prime Ministers had changed residences, but without destroying existing structures. As the historian Narayani Gupta said: “Rulers have changed residences, built imposing edifices. Going backwards, Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, Indira Gandhi in 1965, the shift to Delhi in 1912, the summer capital and Viceregal Lodge at Shimla in 1887, Shah Jahan 1648, the Lodis in the 14th Century to Agra, besides (the foundation of) Ferozabad, Tughlaqabad and Siri. None of these led to destruction on the scale now going on between Maulana Azad Road and Rajendra Prasad Road, and not just Rajpath, as is the general impression. The only argument for concentrating them at one site is for security, by having bomb-proof shelters close together. Of course, there is no official reference to these (except with regard to the new Parliament building). This could be the reason for insisting on a new structure. The existing Parliament building needs only a lot of careful restoration, not replacement (Karan Singh’s letter stated this).”

Karan Singh’s appeal

In a letter to Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu in October 2019, veteran Congress leader Karan Singh had opposed the proposed restructuring of the Parliament House and Rajpath. He wrote: “I am of the confirmed opinion that the beautiful, unique, round parliament building that we have should, on no account, be abandoned. We will never be able to build such a structure again, and to shift into a modern building will deprive us of the special ambience of the old one. In my view, it should be possible for us to shift unnecessary material and offices out of the present building and extend the halls to accommodate more members.”

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Karan Singh added: “We could consider locating the Lok Sabha in the Central hall where the Constituent Assembly met for several years. If the Rajya Sabha could be shifted into the Lok Sabha hall, and its old hall could be used as a central Hall-type lounge for members. This would be far better than abandoning this magnificent building which is redolent with history and the memory of our great Constitution makers and Parliamentarians.”

Narayani Gupta countered the government’s claim that bringing together of various Ministries would help in smoother functioning, resulting in easier disposal of files. She said: “That government departments are scattered was not [owing to] lack of planning, but a deliberate decision not to concentrate all of them in one ‘campus’. The redevelopment project deliberately goes against this. The unstated reason for pushing the project has to do with real estate and transport-oriented development—there are going to be three basements for each nine-storey block, and the Metro will connect them—copied from Singapore—and much land underground will be opened up for commercial use. I suspect this will make the whole area utterly glamorous to the Delhi public in the same way as, in the 1970s, Palika Bazaar was. As for the project fiddling with history, well, ‘history’ has been thrown out of the window long ago.”

Interestingly, the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker built residences after the First World War, between 1918 and 1929. These are not part of the redevelopment project. Zone D of Master Plan, Delhi is popularly referred to as “Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone”. Its boundaries, and building controls, have been a constant subject of discussion.

Narayani Gupta said: “Architect Patwant Singh tried to freeze it by persuading the government to set up the Delhi Urban Art Commission in 1974. But ‘exceptions’ were constantly being made. [The hotels] Taj Mansingh, Le Meridien, Shangri-La, the P+T building on Janpath, the Gujarat Bhavan, are some of these. In 2014, the government, with the tacit support of many architects, scuppered the proposal to designate Delhi a ‘heritage city’ so that these height and ‘footprint’ controls could be set aside.”

Lutyens’ pluralist design

When Lutyens and Baker designed New Delhi, they kept in mind India’s pluralist past, incorporated Mughal and Rajput elements into the construction, and sought to blend the new city with its existing monuments. Hence, like the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid in the old city, which were built with red sandstone, the new city, too, attempted to sync the medieval and the modern, making sure the new construction blended in rather than jutting out like a sore thumb. How different is the Central Vista project? Narayani Gupta said: “The plans so far shared are of humungous Nazi-type buildings. I personally have not seen any detailed drawings, which is where the symbols projecting a particular tradition can be incorporated.”

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Rezavi argued: “It is not just a question of aesthetics, it is a question of India’s history. The project needed wide-ranging consultation. The British had many rounds of consultations. They even consulted on who to choose as an architect. None of it was done now. No transparency has been there. Today, even if you are destroying a footpath of the Lutyens’ zone, you are destroying national heritage. You cannot do that.”

Interestingly, Lutyens wanted the Presidential palace at a higher level than the Secretariat, an idea overruled by Baker. The new project carries forward Lutyens’ belief that the ruler had to live at a high level, which the Rajput style of architecture also symbolises. Rezavi said: “When the British built the new city, they made sure to do so virtually on an unused, or barren stretch of land, so to say. If the government had to have a new city of sorts for Parliament, PM’s residence, could they not have found a new stretch elsewhere?”

Built between 1911 and 1929, the Viceroy’s House or the Rashtrapati Bhavan, conceived as Lutyens Delhi’s centrepiece, was built on the crest of a ridge, with the Mughal-style gardens in its rear, and the two Secretariat buildings, designed by Baker, flanking the Rajpath, which extended all the way down to the War Memorial, and then to the Purana Quila, or Indraprastha, the site of the first city of Delhi. It neatly linked the Pandavas’ city with the British, while incorporating the best of Mughal and Rajput architecture such as chhajja (sun-breaker), jaali (latticed window or screen) and chhattri (umbrella-like dome). Pluralism was the touchstone. The new city, it is feared, may not encapsulate a similar vision.

On the large-scale felling of trees such as jamun, gulmohur and shahtoot as part of the project, Narayani Gupta said: “I read varying reports on the trees. Many will be cut (as were for IGNCA in the 1980s). Many are contemporary with British New Delhi; look at archival photos of the 1920s and 1930s. I have also read that those which are cut will not survive replanting. Some of us will not recover from the loss, but Delhi has a history of losses and of revival, as you well know. It is a tragedy which future generations will forget, just as we have forgotten the canal and the peepuls along Chandni Chowk.”

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Therein lies a nation’s despair. Delhi, as Khushwant Singh once informed us, was founded on the banks of the Yamuna, the sister of Yama, the God of death. It is said that no king or empire could survive its wrath. According to a legend, the city has been built and rebuilt eight times. But no ruler, including the British, as William Dalrymple points out in his book, City of Djinns, has survived to live in it: “Whoever has built a new city in Delhi has always lost it: the Pandava brethren, Prithviraj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughlak, Shah Jahan…They all built new cities and they all lost them. We [the British] were no exceptions.”

History has its lessons. The question is: is the Modi government tuned in?

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