Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overhaul of New Delhi’s historic center was always going to be controversial – even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Since it was announced in September 2019, the $1.8 billion Central Vista Redevelopment Project has been branded unduly expensive, environmentally irresponsible and a threat to cultural heritage. And with Modi’s elaborate new private residence – which comprises 10 buildings across 15 acres (6 hectares) of land – among dozens of planned new government structures, many critics have dismissed the scheme as an architectural vanity project that serves India’s populist leader, not its people.
This outrage has been brought into sharp focus by the coronavirus crisis. Amid a devastating second wave that has pushed the country’s hospitals to breaking point, opposition MP Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter last week to compare the cost of the project to the amount needed to vaccinate 450 million Indians or purchase 10 million oxygen cylinders. “But (Modi’s) ego is bigger than people’s lives,” he concluded.
Indignation has only grown in recent days, after it emerged that construction at the site has been deemed an “essential service” – meaning work continues, even as building projects elsewhere are at a standstill. This urgency is widely thought to reflect a race to complete the new triangular parliament – the project’s centerpiece – before the end of 2022, when India celebrates 75 years of independence.
Indeed, for nationalists, the building’s symbolism lies not only in its design, which alludes to the importance of triangles in the sacred geometries of several religions, but in India’s ability to complete large-scale infrastructure projects quickly and on schedule.
But while the speed, cost and timing of the development have attracted ire, the underlying question of whether New Delhi’s aging government district needs revamping exposes deeper divides.
Indian MP and writer Shashi Tharoor, a fierce critic of Modi’s, has long rallied against the project. Since the earliest days of the pandemic he has called for the government to redirect funds earmarked for the development to help fight Covid-19.
“Why now, at such colossal expense and at a time when the country and economy are reeling from the effects of the lockdown?” he told CNN in a phone interview earlier this year.
Yet even this most vocal of critics accepted that modernizing India’s parliament and Central Visa – a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) stretch of New Delhi’s central boulevard, Rajpath – could, in theory, have its merits.
“From a purely utilitarian point of view, many would agree there is a need for some significant changes,” Tharoor said. “One is that the parliament building would have needed an extensive renovation to be fit for purpose, and clearly the government concluded that they couldn’t do that, and that they needed to build a new one.”
“And as for the Central Vista, a number of the 1950s and ’60s buildings, some of which I’ve had the dubious pleasure of working in … there really is an architectural case for getting rid of them and replacing them.
“My concern here is the utter lack of consultation before such a momentous decision was taken,” he said, adding: “There’s really been no opportunity for comments, criticism, suggestions, ideas. There’s a vibrant architectural community and very few of them feel like they’ve been given a fair hearing.”
Fit for purpose?
When work began on the original Central Vista plan in the early 20th century, English architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker envisaged a long ceremonial boulevard akin to the Champs Elysees in Paris or the Capitol Complex in Washington D.C.
It came to be known as Kingsway, and the grand buildings running along its edges were designed to serve a colonial government, not an Indian one.
When the country gained independence from Britain in 1947, India sought to reappropriate the district for its own burgeoning democracy. A statue of King George VI, the then-reigning British king and last emperor of India, was torn down, but the colonial structures were largely retained and repurposed. The circular council house became India’s parliament, the opulent Viceroy’s House was transformed into a presidential residence and Kingsway was given a new name: Rajpath.
In the decades that followed, development in the area accelerated to accommodate the growing administration. Police barracks were erected, car parking was introduced, and new ministry buildings spilled out either side of the central boulevard.
According to the architect behind the new redevelopment, Bimal Patel, this “haphazard” sprawl has corrupted Lutyens and Baker’s original urban plan and left the area unfit for a modern government. Designs by Patel’s firm, HCP, were chosen from six proposals in a competition to reimagine the area and modernize the facilities.
“You have old stables and barracks that have been converted into offices – they’re completely dysfunctional. It’s like an old slum – it’s like a little village in there,” said Patel in a video interview, referring to some of the buildings flanking Rajpath.
His firm’s sweeping vision for the 86-acre (35-hectare) site includes new chambers for MPs, a conference center and landscaped public gardens. The country’s National Archives will be refurbished, while the North and South Blocks of the Secretariat Building, which currently house India’s cabinet, will be turned into museums.
With the creation of new office space, ministries currently scattered around New Delhi will all be relocated to the site. Patel argues this will make the Central Vista a “synergistic location” that will improve the efficiency and productivity of India’s government.
The symbolic heart of the project is the country’s new parliament. HCP’s triangular design sits directly next to its predecessor, which is also being turned into a museum. Inside, two horseshoe-shaped chambers will house the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha – the parliament’s upper and lower houses respectively – while a light-filled Constitution Hall features an adjoining gallery displaying India’s written constitution.
MPs will be seated in twos rather than crammed onto long benches, and the new, larger parliament features touch screens for each member.
For Patel, this modernization is a matter of necessity. While the current parliament has been updated over the decades, with new floors added, the old building is now simply too small, he argued.
“It’s crowded and there’s no more possibility for expansion at a time when we need to increase the number of seats,” Patel said, alluding to a planned increase in the number of Indian MPs to reflect the country’s growing population.
“We need to improve the technology, we need space for dining, we need to create toilets, we need to create storage space, and office and administration space – it’s very clear that it can’t be done in the space available, so we’ve created a new facility next door.”
On Wednesday, two Indian citizens lodged a case with the Delhi High Court to try to halt work at the Central Vista, arguing construction could aid the spread of Covid-19. The petitioners then took the matter to the Supreme Court, after city authorities had “failed to appreciate the gravity” of the situation.
This is not the first attempt to formally oppose the revamp. In April last year, eight months before Modi laid the parliament’s foundation stone in a high-profile photo-op, a petition was filed to the Supreme Court opposing plans on legal and environmental grounds. The next month, a group of 60 former civil servants wrote a scathing open letter to Modi describing the project as a “thoughtless and irresponsible act” that was motivated by “a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky.’”
The wide-ranging letter went on to discuss the “severe environmental damage” the redevelopment will cause to “the lungs of the city.” The plans are “shrouded in secrecy,” it read, and “not substantiated by any public consultation or expert review.”
The group also highlighted the architectural value of buildings earmarked for demolition, saying that the scheme would “irrevocably” destroy the area’s cultural heritage.
Historian Swapna Liddle, who has written various books on New Delhi’s history, echoed some of their concerns. She highlighted the risks of turning symbolic political buildings – like the North and South Blocks — into museums.
“When you say North Block you don’t just mean a building, you mean a particular institution,” Liddle said over the phone. “The fact that buildings are associated with history, with traditions and with institutions is very important.
“Parliament House is the place where constitutional debate (has taken place), so you should think very long and hard before separating the building from the tradition.”
In a polarized political landscape, it’s perhaps little surprise that a project of this magnitude has invited criticism from many quarters. But regardless of the scheme’s virtues or shortcomings, Modi’s insistence on pushing ahead amid India’s worst public health crisis in a generation may see him lose the support of allies he might once have counted on.
“People are dying of Covid but (Modi’s) priority is the Central Vista project,” tweeted Yashwant Sinha, a former minister of finance and external affairs, and a member of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party until 2018. “Should we not be building hospitals instead? How much more (must) the nation … pay for electing a megalomaniac?”