By a split 2-1 judgment, the Supreme Court gave green signal to the Central Vista redevelopment plan, holding that the audacious Rs 20,000 crore project suffered no infirmity in the award of various approvals or change in land use. But the dissent note by one of the three judges and serious reservations raised in a large number of petitions under Court’s consideration underscores that the government creating conducive public opinion through effective communication is imperative. Recall the apex court severely upbraiding the Centre the other day over its “aggressive” implementation of the project led to the solicitor general tendering an apology on the government’s behalf.
There is no denying that government moved on the project with unheard-of alacrity, despite a shrill cacophony of questions on the very concepts and contours of the project that has been termed “megalomaniac” and “profligate”. Significantly, at a recent launch of a book on Gandhiji in Delhi, where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat delivered the keynote address, some eminent persons maintained, Central Vista redevelopment was in essence against what Gandhi believed.
The capital city, ominously bursting at the seams with well over 22 million inhabitants, above all called for a concerted strategy to decongest it. Contrary to firm plans finalised over 30 years ago to shift a large number of offices, PSUs, and activities out of Delhi, the city has been constantly burdened, not only with cluttered unauthorised ‘colonies’ that are regularly regularised but also innumerable piecemeal structures like the Videsh Mantralaya, CWG stadiums, Ambedkar Centre, Pragati Maidan complex, Sarojini Nagar/Kidwai Nagar redevelopment, creating an ugly urban jungle. Now comes the crème de la crème, rewriting of history around capital’s veritable sanctum sanctorum—the Edwin Lutyens-Herbert Baker-crafted symbols of colonial empire, yielding place to “new India” structures.
The architectural landscape that Lutyens created is slated to undergo a massive transformation: Parliament House to become a “Museum of Democracy”; the Herbert Baker-designed North Block also a museum showcasing “The Making of India”, and South Block a third museum, “India at 75”. A new parliament building is envisaged within the existing complex, a triangular edifice sporting three spires, to house a 1,200-seat Lok Sabha as well as a 500-seat Rajya Sabha, besides offices for all MPs and a common lounge in close vicinity.
Many firmly believe that if the iconic Parliament House is short of office space, another annexe may be built adjacent to it, rather than junk the original structure. The place of Westminster, where Parliament convenes in the UK, dates back to the mid-1800s. Westminster Hall is even older, built in 1099, and it is still in use. German government went about the task of redesigning the Reichstag building as a symbol of a ‘New Germany’, while retaining the original historical façade and dimensions.
Again, the 4 sq km patch of land in central Delhi is integrally tied with the city’s aspiration to become a world heritage city in terms of the application submitted to Unesco in 2013, listing Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) along with Shahjahanabad (old Delhi). It appears ironical that the redevelopment project will afford primacy to creating a monumental spine of babudom and bureaucracy, when, instead, there is a need to drastically trim the bloated bureaucracy. In the early years after Independence, the entire government was accommodated in the South Block and the North Block. Ever short of office accommodation, the civil service is now nestled in an array of few sprawling Bhavans and about 30 other buildings across the city. The proposed accommodation in the new common secretariat complex will be about five times the present capacity of Krishi Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan, which are slated to be razed, in addition to several other buildings along and around Rajpath.
Explaining the project’s raison d’ etre, the government maintains, the new Master Plan would “represent the values and aspirations of a New India”. But would the contemplated project serve the PM’s oft-repeated commitment to ‘minimum government’, predicated on promotion of ‘Digital India’ as well as power of technology? In this context, the proposed construction of 10 new eight-storey structures for a common secretariat for around 70,000 central government employees of all ministries looks incongruous. As The Economist recently visualised, and the Covid-19 pandemic has actually shown through work from home, the office of the mid-21st century will be far different. The internet, personal computing and handheld devices enable managers to instantly communicate. Hot-desking in offices, with unassigned desks, enables establishments to substantially cut the need for office space. In an era of remote collaboration, software and documents sit in the cloud, and several offices and activities could well disperse, which will help the capital get much-desired relief.
Notwithstanding Central Vista’s salient project parameters shrouded, tough deadlines were announced (prior to Covid-19 crisis) for its transformation—work to start in May, redevelopment completed by November 2021, the new Parliament by March 2022, the 75th year of India’s independence, and the new integrated Central Secretariat by March 2024. In incredibly quick time, Delhi Development Authority approved the change in land use of six plots spread over 86 acres in the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, of the 24.7 acre plots housing establishments such as Vigyan Bhawan, another 7.7 acre plot on which stands the National Archives, also of 15-acre plot abutting President’s Estate from transportation (bus terminal/parking) to residential, for prime minister’s new residence to come up on Dalhousie Road south of Raisina Hills, closer to South Block, and Vice President’s house on the other side of Rajpath near North Block. Of course, an ambitious benchmark for time-definite execution of redevelopment work, if achieved, would be desirable in the country notorious for projects languishing endlessly.
The author is Senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi. Views are personal