The continuation of the Central Vista project as “essential work” as India grapples with its devastating second wave, generated an avalanche of criticism that alluded to the government’s misplaced priorities. Many took to social media, to reflect on yet another gesture of apathy on the government’s end, to go ahead with the project, instead of using the financial resources to strengthen the health infrastructure that has now collapsed.
While most criticised the government’s priorities and sheer indifference, some, also revelled in the nostalgia and romanticism of the green gardens on either side of Rajpath, a space people called their own, that has now been razed to the ground.
Rajpath: A Path Now Erased
Deeply entrenched in Indian history as the seat of Mughal emperors, and later embodying an imperial character as the site of the British Raj’s new capital, parts of New Delhi, carries with it multiplicitous narratives. The postcolonial state is an amalgamation of these, not just architecturally, but also symbolically.
At the nascent stages of Indian nationalism, the British decided to shift their capital from Calcutta, to Delhi. What tailed the decision was the conception and planning of the new capital in a colonial fashion, that was rooted in European classism and the then Garden City principle.
While the imperial state’s architectural plan did not intend for the lush gardens on either side of Rajpath to be a ‘public’ space, people have timelessly occupied the space as one’s own. Large scale events like Republic Day and Independence Day parades and protests and movements alike took place at Rajpath. At the same time, small scale interactions including leisurely strolls, afternoon naps, and picnics were commonplace in Rajpath.
The Central Vista Project: A Symbol of Misplaced Priorities
Termed as “architectural megalomania” by former MP and diplomat Pavan Varma, the Central Vista project entails the construction of a triangular Parliament building, with the existing being junked and converted into a museum. It will consist of a common secretariat and the revamping of the iconic 3km boulevard of Rajpath. Five office buildings will sit on either side of Rajpath, and the National Museums along with Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts will be shifted to the North and South Block, to be replaced by some more buildings. The Prime minister’s vice-president’s residence will occupy either side of the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the south of Rajpath will accommodate a separate Prime minister’s office.
The estimated ₹20,000 crore project has caused a flurry of debate. Some addressed the need for a new impulse project in the midst of a devastating second wave, others addressed the ecological and socio-cultural impact of the same, and the rest bemoaned the loss of a public space.
LokPATH, a public collaborative to promote holistic and appropriate development of the physical environment, conducted a seminar debating the problematics the project embodies. The arguments made by a stream of professionals are comprehensive and layered.
Architect and urban designer, Prem Chandavarkar, argues that the project envisions citizens as ‘passive onlookers’ as around 80 acres of land will no longer be available for public use.
The lack of parliamentary or public debate on the project alludes to skepticism regarding it’s planning and implementation. Many have thus termed it an impulsive project, arising from haste, and no proper planning.
Anuj Srivastava, in The Wire, argues, “In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, the architectural firm which won the bid for the tender for the Redevelopment of Central Vista and the Parliament is now desperately seeking approval for its design by approaching various institutions of education and professional bodies for presenting the scheme.”
Similarly, terming the Central Vista project another instance of “malaise of monumentalism as fiat and impetuosity and one undertaken without adequate homework“, Pavan Varma quipped that is akin to “a monumental project called demonetisation – which was announced by the PM.”
Likewise, the announcement of a stringent lockdown in March 2020 without paying heed to the repercussions of the same, especially on vulnerable communities, is yet another instance of how the government’s chest thumping announcements are not backed by sufficient planning.
The Central Vista project is thus no stranger to the government’s recurring manifestations of undemocratic planning, execution, and opacity. Varma further adds, “There is motivated opacity – which is not accidental or oversight, but part of a planned process.”
The opacity surrounding the project is also indicative of architectural planning not being people-centric but being governed as per the whims and fancies of authoritarian regimes, that despite being part of a welfare-state, pay little or no heed to the welfare of its citizens. The project adhering solely to the vision of the Prime minister is also a sign of the government eradicating public spaces at the expense of stifling democracy that is largely believed to be fostered in public spaces. Additionally, the parliamentary buildings at present are completely functional, and destroying the same under the garb of “redevelopment” of “modernisation” is a claim that stems from lack of respect for the environment, and the taxpayers money.
Kanchi Kohli, has argued vigorously against the lack of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done before the planning and approval of the project. A senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, she says, “The redevelopment represents a form of ‘government sprawl’ where powerful offices appropriate urban space with little concern for planning or socio-ecological consequences.” In the same vein, sociologist Amita Baviskar posits that the project solely focuses on “imperial iconography”, while losing sight of ecology and economy.
Public Space, Private Interests
Eminent author, historian and the founder-member of the Conservation Society in Delhi, Narayani Gupta, says “public spaces are not just buildings and trees – they live in our memories.” She also adds, “there are local, national and universal public spaces – each with its own history – they have their own euphoria and tragedy.”
Public spaces are open spaces that are accessible to the public, devoid of identity markers and segregation based on the same. Urban anthropologists have written extensively on city planning and architecture as pivotal forces in shaping urban culture, social interactions. Urban architecture and city layouts are indicative of the nature and type of governance. With the growing demand for inclusionary spaces, postmodern cities have timelessly taken a contradictory stance as beautification projects are favoured over inclusive spaces and disability-friendly architecture. Ambitious urban projects continue to encroach on public spaces, which are vital both physically and functionally. The neglect of nurturing such spaces is not just a flaw of urban planning and architecture, but also a threat to notions of public space and accessibility.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), has been increasingly changing the land use of open areas for public access for purposes of residential and official use of Government offices and VIP residences. To add to the problem, the Central Vista proposal has several offices and VIP residences occupying the area that further prevents public access.
“Cycling and running or even walking anywhere in this will soon be a pipe dream for the common man. Blocking people from open spaces is the easiest way to stifle democracy. Publicly accessible open spaces are the place for the common people of this country to gather, meet, discuss and express their views and the Central Vista has seen many such occasions, from protests to marches for various causes,” says Anuj Srivastava in The Wire.
The Central Vista seems to extend exclusionary spaces. This closed off environment and the demarcation of boundaries, is symbolic of the government pushing away citizens and threatening democracy.
A Space That Was…
Different for each, is a tale of nostalgia affiliated with Rajpath. Some debated on the ecological impact of the project, some argued against the loss of heritage, whereas the rest have criticised the lack of opacity of the project, its execution in the middle of the pandemic, and the impulsivity of the same. The common denominator of all these arguments, however, was one of nostalgia, and the sentimental value attached to the space.
Oral Historian Aanchal Malhotra writes on the special place the jamun tree holds for many. Reflecting on her grandmother’s experiences in Delhi, she writes, “In those days she took the bus from South Delhi to Shah Jahan Road in the city’s centre and walked to her office at the Ministry of Rehabilitation (then at Jaisalmer House). Her eyes light up as she remembers the wide roads around India Gate lined with the vibrant jamun trees all through summer.” She also weaves in her father’s conception of the space that sheds lights on the glory of the flora of Rajpath. “Lutyen’s Delhi or New Delhi, as opposed to any other part of the city, is personified by its grand historic mansions, expansive avenues and of course, its trees. Lutyen’s Delhi is a haven for the jamun tree,” he says.
In the aforementioned tweets, the words, ‘freedom’, and ‘carefree’ are recurring themes. The Central Vista project thus, not only concerns the loss of a spatial zone rooted in Indian history, or individual sentiments, but is also a looming threat to freedom, and democracy, that stems from this government-centric architectural project.
In keeping with such sentiments, Mukul Kesavan, in The Telegraph, opines, “By building a new Parliament in front of the old one, and building offices on either side of Rajpath, he plans to photo-bomb our collective memories.”
Capitalism in the Capital
Danish urban designer and architect Jan Gehl views architecture as the interaction between form and life. He says, “In most of our cities, the idea of a public place includes manicured lawns, benches and, sometimes, even skating rinks. And, yet, there are benches we never sit on and lawns that we can never walk on.” With the project being closed to public debate, the promises of increased public space, improved features, and diverse tree species seem illusive.
There are overlapping narratives surrounding the Central Vista project. The narrative of callousness and government expenditure on the same, however, dwarfs the narrative of the loss of public space and the threat to democracy and freedom.
The issue nevertheless is a matter of grave concern, as what lays ahead is an exclusionary space, where accessibility is long forgotten, and people have no place to call their own. Furthermore, with the looming threat of climate crisis, the decision to eradicate diverse flora and fauna is indicative of an exercise in vanity, and its implementation in the midst of the debilitating second wave of COVID-19 has made explicit the government’s indifference to both, it’s citizens, and the land they inhabit.
Featured Image Source: Manvender Vashist/ PTI