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Home >Opinion >Views >Shashi Tharoor: Let’s not recast New Delhi in any party’s own image

If there is a physical space in the country that embodies the character of Indian democracy, it is undoubtedly the two-mile stretch between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan in the heart of New Delhi. The embodiment of state power at one end and a monument to sacrifice at the other; in between, the Parliament, ministries and government offices, National Archives and Museum, but also vast stretches of lawn where families can stroll, play, consume ice-cream, and wander. A seat of government, yes, but situated amongst the people and freely accessible to them, encapsulating their past and present and allowing them to dream of the future.

This is the area now sought to be remade by the government in its grandiose Central Vista Project, at a cost of 20,000 crore to the national exchequer. A new Parliament building is to be built, existing structures razed to accommodate a series of identical-looking ministries, a new residence constructed for the Vice President and, of course, a new prime ministerial enclave erected, in an unabashed expression of the government’s ‘edifice complex’. The barriers have gone up and the earth-movers are rumbling in an enterprise shamelessly deemed an “essential service" even when the nation reels under the second wave of the covid pandemic.

This is a colossal misallocation of national priorities in the context of a national calamity. The 20,000 crore budgeted for this pharaonic ‘Modi- fication’ may not seem outrageous in and of itself, but it is being allocated by a government that is enduring a farmers’ siege rather than paying minimum support prices for grain, that could not find the money to order adequate supplies of vaccines before the second wave and failed to purchase oxygen supplies for citizens gasping for air, that refused to find funds during last year’s lockdown to transport migrant labourers (forcing them to trudge hundreds of kilometres home) and that has offered the most meagre fiscal stimulus of any major economy in the face of an economic crisis and record unemployment.

No one contemplates renovating their bedroom when family members are dying in the main hall, but that is exactly what this callous and irresponsible government has arrogantly chosen to do at a time of national catastrophe.

The irony of conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for a new Parliament building during the pandemic, while suspending the work that should have been taking place in the old one (two of Parliament’s regular sessions were abandoned or truncated), was lost on the government. I had been one of the Members of Parliament (MPs) who called for an extensive renovation of the present Parliament building, including relocating the Lok Sabha in the old Central Hall, rather than building a new one. I stand by that view. Nor do I object to the bulldozing of characterless 1960s monstrosities like Shastri Bhavan, nor to the construction of new offices for MPs. But the wholesale destruction being planned, including of perfectly serviceable buildings like the National Museum and the recently-completed Jawahar Bhavan, all in the pursuit of uniformity among banal and repetitive sarkari offices, is both unnecessary and extravagant. Many of the present structures could have been upgraded without the environmental impact of destroying and rebuilding them.

But who was consulted before making these wasteful decisions? In overriding environmental and heritage laws, disregarding the Delhi master-plan and expediting clearances, the authorities neither took the views of architects, environmentalists or parliamentarians into account, nor held any public hearings. The option of preserving the newer buildings, archives and museums with their contents intact was ignored. Scholars and museum experts around the world have expressed concern about the grave risks involved in rehousing ancient works of art and fragile manuscripts from the buildings to be demolished.

And what about the people? Rajpath will no longer be a grand space for the public, since it will be lined exclusively by faceless government buildings on both sides. As architect William J.R. Curtis observes: “The overall effect of this symmetrical and regimented array of banal boxes is curiously dictatorial." The presence of the PM’s residence will import the nightmares of security and movement restrictions to the Vista, limiting public access.

‘Lutyens’ Delhi’, in the Moditva rendering, is a metonym for corruption and elitism; replacing it with standardized infrastructure will render it merely a symbol of governmentalism. Nor will it gift the nation a great urban legacy. A leading international architectural magazine describes the project as “a retrograde and anti-ecological urban plan" which could “turn an entire stretch of the Rajpath, once so free and easy, into a surveyed security zone" laden with “outmoded architecture".

In its desire to recast the national capital in its own image, the Bharatiya Janata Party government is behaving like those husbands of Aryavrata who change not only their wives’ surnames, but even their first names, to signify that their identities have been irrevocably subsumed in their new lord and master’s. Changing the physical face of Lutyens’s Delhi is essentially a show of power, a desire to stamp the national capital with the chhaap of Moditva.

The Central Vista project puts into concrete a Mussolinian taste for the grandiose that characterizes the “New India" of this government’s fantasies. It is not the imperial legacy of Lutyens that is being dismantled—that happened decades ago—but the idea of democratic India itself.

Shashi Tharoor is a Congress member of the Lok Sabha

(This piece is part of a Mint Debate on the Central Vista. Read the counterview by Swapan Dasgupta here.)

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