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The plan to remake Lutyens’ Delhi

The atrium of Parliament House. The Centre has invited proposals to either redevelop or build a new Parliament building, construct a new common central secretariat and redevelop the grand central vista running from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. (Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times)Premium
The atrium of Parliament House. The Centre has invited proposals to either redevelop or build a new Parliament building, construct a new common central secretariat and redevelop the grand central vista running from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. (Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times)

Redevelopment of the central vista at Delhi’s heart is on the cards. What will the capital gain and what will it lose?

New Delhi: In the run-up to the 2019 elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a startling admission in one of his television interviews early during the campaign. “I could neither make the Lutyens’ world a part of me nor me a part of them," he said. “I could not win them over. I am a representative of the non-elite world. For me, everything is about the people of India," he added.

Modi had spent nearly five years at the helm as the head of the 70,000-odd government employees who occupy the high-security zone in the heart of New Delhi, however, Lutyens’ Delhi lay beyond reach—a symbol of “old India" and its power centres. In early September, a government policy gave shape to that lingering concern, when a tender was floated to redevelop the central vista along Rajpath and the associated buildings in the vicinity.

But, an attempt to remake Delhi had begun much earlier. As soon as the previous Modi-led government was sworn in, in 2014, an exercise was done, a senior government official said on condition of anonymity. “We looked at the Lodhi complex area (near Lodhi Garden). Things didn’t go well." The plan was to build a cluster of roughly 10 new multistorey buildings. The idea was to centralize the government machinery in one place, where representatives from every ministry could sit. The same rationale animates the current proposal too. This has fuelled concerns among a group of architects, conservationists, and historians about the fate of Lutyens’ central vista, and whether the changes would affect its character and skyline.

Prabhakar Singh, director general of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), the agency helming the project, believes that the worries are unfounded. “Our dream is to make it a world-class space. It will be green, smart, and intelligent."

But that kind of certainty is not shared by everyone. In conversations with Mint, several senior government officials, who would be directly involved in shepherding the project, claimed “things have been kept under wraps" even to them. “None of us were aware," said one senior urban ministry official. Despite the apparent lack of consultation even internally within government agencies that would have a direct stake, the ball has been set rolling on a project that could have drastic implications for Delhi’s long-held dream to become a world heritage city.

The three principles

Remaking and unmaking the symbols of political predecessors has been a quintessential Indian tradition. Several state governments have demolished or repurposed buildings to erase the legacy of their predecessors (erstwhile Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa once converted a new government secretariat complex built by her arch-rival M. Karunanidhi into a hospital). More recently, the future of Amaravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, has come under a cloud. Urban planners and architects claim this model may show up in Delhi and leave a lasting legacy.

With little dispute on the need for efficient office spaces and even modernization, the gathering opposition to the remaking of New Delhi has begun to coalesce around three broad points: will the proposed changes be reasonable? Will legitimate concerns be given a hearing? And will the process of remaking a historically significant zone be transparent?

The lack of clear directions in the tender as to which buildings cannot be brought down, or even the drawing of a precise site boundary, has, in particular, raised hackles of the Indian Institute of Architects. And 18 of its members showed up at a pre-bid meeting to demand a transparent design contest. Without a clear map of the site boundary and other such finer details, nobody even knows the exact area that is being taken up for redevelopment, they said.

But the government tender is on course with no major changes, with six bids under review. If one of them is picked, work could start as soon as early next year, with an ambitious November 2020 deadline for refurbishing the public parks along the central vista (in the first phase).

The whole thing is so “ambiguous" and “unclear", said Rajesh Luthra, an architect who was at the pre-bid meeting. The government document inviting proposals, for example, says the design should “represent the values and aspirations of a New India" and must be “rooted in the Indian culture and social milieu". “In no other part of the world will something of this significance be done in such a guarded, shielded manner," Luthra said. “The answer to any question is ‘read the bid document’, which lacks many necessary details. The whole thing seems to be pre-determined," he added.

But for some people within the government, the lack of precise details is actually a strong point. “This is a once in a lifetime project for which out-of-the-box thinking is required. If we clearly say do this or don’t do this... khel khatam (the game is over)," a senior urban ministry official told Mint on condition of anonymity. “Shuruvaat to kare (Let’s get started). We’ll see where it goes," the official added.

Heritage city tag

What happens in this four-square-kilometre patch of land in central Delhi matters because the site is integrally tied in with New Delhi’s aspiration to become a world heritage city, said A.G.K. Menon, an urban planner and former convener of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). The city’s application which was submitted to the Unesco in 2013, and kept in suspension since, lists Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) along with Shahjahanabad (old Delhi) as the rationale for seeking the tag.

“Nobody is saying freeze the area and do nothing. The space crunch argument is a perfectly valid argument. But you can’t do jugaad in this zone," Menon said. “When there is a greenfield project, one can invite ideas. But when it is a heritage area, there can’t be a blind invitation for ideas. The parameters within which you will invite ideas has to be clear. So, of course, I am worried about (the) skyline," he added.

The tender document predicts of a legacy that will last “150 to 200 years at the very least", Menon said, adding: “We can’t make in haste and regret in leisure."

Housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri, on his part, insisted there is no plan to destroy the North or South Block buildings. Incidentally, Puri himself spent many years holed up in a South Block office during his stint with the foreign service. “I would like to see the Indian capital to have buildings befitting a rising power in the world," he told Mint.

Impossible deadlines

One big problem is the tight deadlines that have been imposed, with the entire project expected to be completed by March 2024, just in time for the next general elections. “The construction is supposed to begin in a mere four months, which is not enough time to get a buy-in from even just the various government departments involved," said Sonali Rastogi, an independent architect and member of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, which is one of the many agencies that will be kept busy as the project rolls forward.

“Permissions will be given in haste and we will be reduced to a rubber stamp. If we want people from the world over to come and see this (the LBZ), perhaps a little more thought and time is needed," she added. More than one government official, in response, said: “This government is all about impossible deadlines."

But, even within the government, not everyone is entirely on-board with the plan that has been set in motion. “This was a great opportunity to decentralize," said one senior government bureaucrat, who did not wish to be named. “Send the officers out and decongest Delhi. Maybe make beautiful gardens and public spaces and museums in the North and South Block. Retain only the Prime Minister’s Office," he said.

For instance, Malaysia (Putrajaya) and Indonesia have taken this path, achieving every single objective the Indian government has stated as the reason behind the redevelopment, while also improving security arrangements and citizen convenience, the bureaucrat said. But these arguments don’t matter because “the driving aspiration (behind the proposal) seems to be imperial Rome," he added.

The way ahead

With the lines clearly drawn between two competing visions for Delhi, the project may set off a long-drawn-out skirmish, leaving many unhappy on both sides of the divide. One way to sidestep bitter divisions would be to reissue the tender after wide consultations, based on the Council of Architecture norms, said Raj Rewal, a celebrated architect and among the few who have designed structures within the existing LBZ (the Parliament’s library built by him was opened in 2003).

“The criteria listed in the tender are absolute rubbish," he said. Terms like annual turnover, which will automatically eliminate many architects, are not necessary because ideas for an iconic Government of India zone must be about creativity and ability, and not how much money someone has. “It’s a bureaucratic way of handling. They will mess it up," Rewal said. “Many of the (existing) buildings can be meticulously preserved. Only the insides can be refurbished according to modern needs. Any intervention in the LBZ must be compatible with everything that is (already) there," he added.

Ultimately, beyond the battles over specific buildings and what is worth preserving, what may really matter, come 2024, is how much of the new Lutyens’ zone is kept out of bounds and how much becomes the people’s area. In a city that desperately lacks open spaces, and with at least part of the motivation for the project originating from a “non-elite" mindset, the degree of eventual access for ordinary people will be one good yardstick to measure success, say experts.

If Delhi had its own Washington Mall (the heart of governance in Washington DC which is filled with wide open parks and museums), what would it look like? In order to have the room to ask that question, Sohail Hashmi of Sahmat, a non-governmental organization, floated a petition seeking the intervention of the President of India, whose home is at the heart of the LBZ.

Over 4,000 people have signed it till now. Hashmi, who organizes heritage walks in the city, says people have constantly been pushed out of the zone.

“I have taken people to this area (LBZ) for at least 15 years now. There has been a gradual takeover by bureaucrats and security services," he said. “In a democracy, agency should be with the people. But people are constantly being sidelined," Hashmi added. If and when New Delhi is remade, at least that specific question regarding the nature of our democracy would have a clear, symbolic, and visible answer.

Pretika Khanna contributed to this story.

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