The Central Vista Redevelopment – politics of erasure of a political artefact

Fathima Shirin

“The new Master Plan for the redevelopment of Central Vista in Delhi ‘represents the values and aspirations of a New India’ – in architectural terms, what actually corresponds with ‘New India’?” asks former Rajya Sabha MP Pavan K Varma.

In architectural terms, this project of “New India” can be defined as ‘Futuristic’. Not parallel to the blob architecture, space-age comics, films, etc. we see today but to Italian artist, poet (and a fervent fascist) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s ‘Futurism’ initiative of the early 1900s, which is a “loathing of everything old” – it’s echo, the modernist nationalism. “All this is part of curating the memory of generations. The government is tactically planning and constructing a history, erasing all the complexities of who we are as people.” says Carnatic vocalist, writer T.M Krishna in a discussion with Chennai Architecture Foundation(CAF) on the Central Vista Redevelopment proposal.

According to the plan, a new Parliament building is to be constructed, with the existing building converted into a museum. Five big office buildings each would come up on both sides of Rajpath, while the National Museum and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) buildings would be brought down. The museum would be shifted to North and South Block. The residences of the Vice-President and the Prime Minister are also proposed to move to either side of the Rashtrapati Bhawan and a separate Prime Minister’s Office building is proposed to the south of Rajpath. The project also removes or rather grabs 80 percent of the land from public use.

“The proposal would be terrible for the space around Rajpath which are public spaces. The word public implies that the functions around that space should also be public which this project undoubtedly is not. By making bigger government buildings with their backs facing these spaces around Rajpath, with boundary walls and increased security, the public space is certainly diminishing” Rajiv Bha’k’at, architect/urban designer from SPA Delhi, tells Maktoob.

Like many others, he too disapproves the ‘pseudo-nationalism’ the proposal is hiding behind, “This project appears to be a part of a greater nationalizing narrative, of an erasure of the colonial era history and redesigning with an ‘Indian architect’.

But what is strange is that the type of design proposed in itself is imperialist and colonial in style.” These are the socio-cultural spaces that the people occupy with authority through protests but also celebrations.

Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) issued a land-use change for the Rs.20,000 crore project, drawing criticism from MPs like Shashi Tharoor, Mahua Moitra, who called out the ‘dangerous misallocation of resources and misplaced priorities’ of the Centre. At the same time, few other MPs expressed their displeasure in the new Parliament building being made ‘a 7-star hotel replica’.

While these criticisms are recent, the proposal was announced in September 2019, and yet no real discussion in the Parliament has happened. But there was an immediate opposition in the beginning itself from the urban experts of the country. LokPath, a collective of architects, urban designers, environmentalists, historians, etc. launched online petitions against the massive redevelopment that impacts heritage, public space and the environment, without full disclosure, cumulative impact assessments of all the integrated components and no public hearing. But at the same time the bodies that are trusted with the protection of these spaces and guidelines like the HCC, CoA, have not been either active or positive in its responses.

There are instances of striking modern parliamentary buildings, such as Louis Kahn’s Parliament buildings in Dacca, Oscar Niemeyer’s Congress building Brasilia, etc., but the widespread opposition and discontentment in the design community are not to be dismissed merely as sentimentality or viewed as the classic, narrow Conservation vs. Development binary. The outrageous opaque facade built around the briefs and processes for the project has only made visible many deep cracks within.

The selection of designers for such projects are generally open to all and conducted through international design competitions with an esteemed, neutral jury ( like the IGNCA, which is on the demolition list) while in this project, Gujarat based firm HCP consultants won the contract through a bidding process. This is the same firm that was responsible for Sabarmati Riverfront development during Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. HCP is also assigned with PM’s dream project of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor development, where apart from shops and residences several ancient temples too have been demolished for ‘progress’.

It is ironic that the only firm that refused to sign a letter in the pre-bid meeting held by CPWD with 26 other firms to have an open design competition, has won the bid. The speed and violence in the pace of action which is a desperation for the completion of the project are unmissable i.e the Central Vista by 2021, the new Parliament building by 2022 and the new Central Secretariat by 2024 (the next general elections). The violation of building laws, the number of trees that would be lost, the number of water resources required, the unrecoverable carbon footprint, will have drastic repercussions, on an already choking Delhi.

In the name of increased legroom for the ministers, in the name of progress and modernization, a reverse placemaking has been set off and the consequences immeasurable. “Grand designs in politics and architecture have always been high aspirations of the state but in a democracy, this is less so, and should not be so.” posits architect Rajiv Bhagat. Hence, the physical architecture of these public spaces should not simply interest only the architects, urban experts, and environmentalists but also political scientists. “This majestic building is redolent of great Parliamentarians,” says MP Karan Singh expressing his discontentment. The Central Vista as a whole is an artifact of political culture symbolizing power and resistance to power. By altering the landscape of these spaces, the landscape of politics will simultaneously change.

Fathima Shirin is an architecture graduate from Srinivas School of Architecture, Karnataka. Shirin writes on architecture, development, and culture.

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