Central Vista: Conundrum Building a new legacy or destroying one!

Looking at the urban planning reforms that the Central Government has undertaken in recent times, the redevelopment of Central Vista in Delhi is the most significant for the national capital. The new workplace of the ministers and bureaucrats would be similar to Capitol in Washington DC of the United State of America. All the key ministries will be now at one place. In the present arrangement, ministry offices are spread all over Delhi.  

South and North Block and Parliament House and other architecture marvel of the British Raj have been at the heart of Delhi since 1911. It is the most ‘powerful’ workplace. All the big decisions were taken in those buildings. Now, they will make a way for the new parliament building that would be art of the Central Vista where ministerial offices will also be built. The decision on old buildings is not yet finalized but most probably the structures will remain and may be turned into museums.  

The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs first proposed the ‘Central Vista redevelopment project’ in 2019.The project would see the redevelopment/reconstruction of several historic buildings in a four-square-km area from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate. The houses situated in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House, North and South block, India Gate and National Archives would be redeveloped amongst others and shifted to a more central location. The now circular parliament building would be remodeled into a triangular structure[a1] .

Speaking in the Rajya Sabha regarding the project, Hardeep Singh Puri, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, highlighted the need for a new parliament building, “Over the years, the parliamentary activities and the number of people working therein and visitors have increased manifold. Hence, the building is showing signs of distress and over utilisation. Further, with the reorganisation of constituencies, the number of Lok Sabha seats is likely to go up and the present building does not have any space to house any additional member.” Moreover, the relocation of the offices of the various Central Government agencies at one place, which the project entails, will make administration more convenient for the Union Government and, hence, smoothen their operation, the government says.

The Criticism

Ever since the project has been announced, it has drawn criticism from urban planners, environmentalists and conservationists. The criticism is based on multiple factors. Firstly, given the heritage of the structure, whose iconic aesthetic have represented the National Capital for over a century, will also be changed with the process, presumably. Over 60 ex-IAS officials, in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hardeep Singh Puri, urged the government to preserve the colonial buildings for their rich heritage. In the letter, they have said that the “redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage nature of this precinct, and destroy it irrevocably”.

Further, the letter said, “The redevelopment planned will, moreover, cause severe environmental damage.” Delhi, which is deemed as one of the most polluted capital of the world, a project of such a massive scale will be definitely burdening the already flailing ecosystem of the city. This has drawn severe criticism from environmentalists. “Each day for the next four years we will have close to 500 trucks of debris, steel, cement et al running from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. How healthy is that for the most polluted capital of the world? And not to forget we are cutting hundreds fully grown beautiful trees. “Government, instead of being a role model, is demonstrating the opposite. Pampering itself instead of taking care of its people and their health,” said Bhavreen Kand, an environmentalist of the Clean Air Collective.

Another point that has triggered skepticism around the project is the huge investment that is required for its construction. The Centre has demarcated Rs 20,000 crores for the complete project, is required to mend something that, from an outsider’s perspective, doesn’t need mending. Given the current situation and the economic depression that will ensue once normal life is resumed; it appears to be an unnecessary burden on the Indian Treasury. The opposition has also moved the government to stall the project. Anand Sharma, Senior Congress leader, has urged the Government to not go forth with the project. In a tweet, Sharma said,” Urging PM to shelve the wasteful Central Vista project & proposed mega Central secretariats at 17 state capitals. Spending over Rs 25,000 crore on grand buildings at a time of unprecedented national crisis will be a criminal waste of public money.”

Further, skepticism is also raised when one gets to know that the deadline for a big project is set for March 2024, a meager 4 years. Is the timeframe sufficient to efficiently build a new Central vista, meanwhile preserving its heritage?

The Answers

In a bid to understand the legitimacy of the aforementioned queries, Urban Update contacted Bimal Patel, Urban planner and Architect, and his firm HCP Design, Planning & Management, who have won the bid for the project. The architect has been making. Excerpts from the interview::

Regarding the redevelopment of Delhi’s Central Vista, a question arises, “Why mend something that isn’t broken”?

The Central Vista was envisioned as an administrative icon of imperial governance in India. Post-independence, it was adapted as the seat of the Indian Government. Since then, many buildings have been built on either sides of Rajpath to house the increasing spatial needs of government offices and institutions. However, lacking an overarching vision, these buildings seem ad hoc with unstructured layouts on underutilised plots. The Central Vista landscape – a heritage asset in itself – and the amenities along it are unable to meet the many demands that are put on them. The heritage buildings, although majestic, lack modern facilities and sufficient space and are unable to serve their present function effectively.

In your view, do you think that such a project will compromise the heritage aspect of the area?

The listed Heritage Buildings in the Central Vista will be appropriately refurbished and upgraded. Although these heritage buildings retain their architectural majesty, they are under severe stress. It is proposed that the North and South blocks will house the National Museum; the Parliament House and its proposed new facility will function together as an ensemble; the National Archives will also gain an extension to meet the current demands of space and modern facilities. The historical valued landscape of the Central Vista will also be upgraded.

Are the green spaces being compromised considering the building of new ministerial buildings at the vista?

The proposal identifies the potential to upgrade and add to the Central Vsita’s existing public space. The design of the Central Secretariat will aid in reclaiming the land currently encroached for building and parking facilities by the administrative and institutional buildings along Rajpath.

If the green spaces are being compromised, then do you think there is a probable alternative for the same or is there a need to reconsider the entire plan looking at the environment perspective?

There is an addition of about 24 acres of land in the public domain in the Central Vista just by removing encroachments. Furthermore, the proposal identifies two sites, between Raisina Hill and the river Yamuna for added green spaces as parks. Towards the West, the National Biodiversity Arboretum, 48 acres in the Presidential Estate. In the east, the New India Gardens, 25 acres at the banks of the Yamuna.

The government has set a deadline of 2024 for the complete revamp of this integral part of Delhi. How realistic is this?

One of the meta-objectives of the project is to showcase that a large complex project, such as this, can be executed proficiently and speedily in India.

The overall development will be phased to ensure that minimal disruption is caused to the workings of the ministries currently located in the Central Vista. The first phase comprises of the Parliament Building, three Central Secretariat office buildings and refurbishment of the Central Vista Avenue. Work on the first phase is underway. The other components of the Master Plan will be subsequently phased over the next four years.

How will the move contribute to the aesthetic appeal of the area? Also, how much will it help in increasing the footfall of tourists at an already well-renowned tourist destination in Delhi?

The aesthetic appeal of Central Vista comes from the symmetry found along its axis and the vast lawns, water bodies and fountains of its designed landscape. It also lies in its historical significance; a vision of administration of the nation designed by Lutyens and Baker. These aspects are what attract tourists and locals alike round the year. However, over time this iconic setting has seen shift in power, multiple haphazard additions and plenty of wear and tear. The Vista currently lacks vital facilities to serve as a prime tourist destination and recreation spot. It will be refurbished and provided with additional infrastructure and adequate amenities befitting its setting and use as public space.

The area also sees heavy footfall per day and a suitable public transport network has come up over the years. With the new construction plan in place, how do you think the mobility would be affected in the region?

The Central Vista is already well connected to Delhi’s metro, bus and road networks. The Master Plan aims to enhance this with a Transport Oriented Development. An underground people mover loop will provide connectivity between offices and the city level metro lines passing through the Central Vista. Offices, conferencing and archival facilities will be fully integrated with Delhi’s metro system by a secure underground shuttle and, with the city’s bus system by an over ground shuttle. Each office cluster will have a common basement that will act as the concourse for the people mover. People authorised to park cars within the Secretariat will do so in the three levels of basements and visitors at the over-ground parking bays along the compounds.

In Conclusion

Given the unprecedented conditions that have engulfed the world in the past couple of months or more, government projects have come to a standstill. Along with the massive stunning effect that the lockdown will have on the economy, the government will be investing Rs 20,000 crores, which is 0.1 per cent of Indian GDP. “That might be a good investment, which allows the government to pump some finances into the construction industry, if we look at it from an economic perspective. Hence, it might uplift the sector,” Pashim Tewari, Technical Director, AIILSG, told Urban Update. The project might increase the efficiency of the government and it might even upgrade the aesthetic of the iconic Lutyen’s design. 

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