The Central Vista project, which the Union government passionately pursuing, is a matter of national anxiety. The intellectual and emotional concerns of the sensitive populace are, however, muted, thanks to the guarded indifference and silence of the media.
An event of this magnitude would have hogged the headlines and dominated prime TV time until a few years ago. Resistance to the project is mired in procedural wrangles with limited redemptive value and predetermined outcomes.
Green-signalled by the Supreme Court, purely on technical grounds, the project has generated considerable hubris among its champions and sullen helplessness among those who cannot see its raison d’être. The project is not only about creating a new Parliament House. It proposes to radically alter the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi, the languid expanses and the uncluttered layout of which were always a matter of national pride.
The rules that restricted alteration in the built heritage of the area were considered as inviolable. Now an unstoppable fate, marked by irreversible changes and incalculable loss seems to be overwhelmingly real and imminent.
That an elected government has the authority to decide on reshaping the capital city is not in doubt. But can authority be equated with mandate? Were the people of India, while electing the ruling party for five years, aware of this monumental disfiguration of their national capital? Of course, the idea that the country should have a new Parliament building while celebrating 75 years of independence has considerable force and logic. The amendments to the existing land-use rules and relaxation of other guidelines brought about for this purpose have the strength of logical reasoning.
The country would have proudly joined the government in celebrating a newly constructed state-of-the-art Parliament building. However, the destructive streak involved in the Central Vista project overshadows the joy of creation.
It is now clear that several ministries will be relocated to ten seven-storeyed buildings. What will be the logistical, social and ecological impact of a few thousand people converging every day in a gigantic building complex? Such a mammoth condominium would evoke the images of the huge state buildings and somber architecture of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Along with the shifting of offices, the Bhavans now lining Janpath and adjoining roads, housing these ministries will be demolished. It is self-evident that the massive quantity of debris and dust these demolitions will generate poses incalculable environmental damage and raises immense practical challenges. Where is this humungous quantity of rubble and broken concrete going to be dumped? What are the environmental and social consequences of such an enormous landfill? Have these aspects been scientifically studied and assessed?
The social and administrative cost-benefit logic of this major decision is not available to appreciate its justification. The Expert Committee of the Environment Ministry has reportedly asked the CPWD to submit a “detailed demolition plan along with mitigative measures”, including the details of the strategy for management of demolition waste.
The buildings marked for demolition are the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Shastri Bhavan, Krishi Bhavan, Vigyan Bhavan, Vice President’s Residence, National Museum, Jawahar Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan, Raksha Bhavan and part of National Archives. The area to be demolished is 4,58,820 square metres.
Threat to historical material
Even if by some perverse logic we are able to reconcile to the razing down of so many huge office buildings, the threat to National Museum, National Archives, and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is even more shocking and has to be approached with more inflamed sensitivity and concern.
It is learnt that IGNCA will be immediately shifted to Hotel Janpath and the annex building of National Archives will be demolished soon. The National Museum will eventually be razed down with the art and heritage objects it houses shifted to North Block or South Block, which would by then be vacant. No doubt, shifting of government offices involving the transportation of several thousand files and records poses enormous practical problems. (After the shifting, any request for a sensitive, troublesome or inconvenient document will be met by the bureaucracy for several years with the standard and convenient answer: ‘missing in shifting of office.”)
Shifting a museum with a phenomenal collection of objects as diverse, invaluable and irreplaceable as in the National Museum and precious archival records held in the National Archives of India is not a mechanical job as shifting a government office.
Even repairs and new constructions in important museums in developed countries are preceded by widespread consultations and consensus building before finalising the design, let alone shifting stock, lock and barrel.
When the Louvre Museum in Paris decided to have a glassy pyramid allowing sunlight into the gallery, public consultations went on for several months. The design for the reconstruction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris after a fire accident in 2019 has evoked considerable discussion and transparent consultations in France. National Museums are seldom shifted unless irretrievably damaged in war or fire.
The inherent value of the objects in the National Museum is self-evident. From the dancing girl of Harappa, the Museum proudly holds several thousands of invaluable original sculptures, edicts, rare idols, priceless coins, paintings, scrolls, gems and jewellery, private collections bequeathed by collectors and hundreds of such series of art objects that connect us with several points in our political and cultural history.
The case of the National Archives is equally significant. Though the main building is not marked for demolition that is no solace as the archival materials are kept substantially in the annex buildings. Several centuries of India’s history lie captured in those original documents held in shelves which, if kept in a straight line would be some 40 km!
The archival records include 45 lakh files, 25000 rare manuscripts, more than a lakh maps, treaties, 1.5 lakh oriental records and 1.3 lakh Mughal documents and several thousand private papers. These documents are naturally brittle and any careless handling could lead to irrevocable damage and loss. The loss or damage of a single object or archival record can create a rupture in our political, cultural and historical narrative.
IGNCA, which may not be as ancient as the National Museum and the National Archives, stands in a self-contained arcade without obstructing any other development. The buildings designed by highly competent architects were constructed with the funds of the Central government. The demolition of these relatively newly constructed massive buildings with a rich collection of heritage objects and manuscripts and an impressive library amounts to throwing away the money of the public exchequer for some unclear and tantalising objective.
If the art objects held in the National Museum are going to occupy the North Block, those office spaces will have to be redesigned to create gallery space. Creating new spaces (for a National Museum) is highly expensive and calls for professional finesse than demolition.
Admitting that it will all be done with incredible precision and impeccable perfection, one still fails to appreciate the need and justification of this maniacal overhaul of titanic proportions. It is not clear how the existing buildings stand in the way of redesigning Central Vista.
No convincing justification for demolition
The first priority ought to have been to retain monumental buildings and prevent all this churning. However, the whole plan appears to argue the case in favour of demolition. Apart from being risky in nature and mammoth in magnitude, the compulsive and eminently avoidable shifting of national treasures has the potential to rob these national institutions of their well-deserved legitimacy and authority in their new avatar.
Demolition destroys national wealth and every demolition erases history. Demolition, therefore, has not only its tangible aspects but has a greater moral dimension. The necessity and compulsion for razing down monumental buildings under the Central Vista project are beyond rational reckoning. That anguish and shock would stay until the unavoidability of demolitions is convincingly shared with the people of India or at least the Parliament. Besides, the political morality of this staggering decision should not go unnoticed.
A government voted to power for five years might justifiably add new buildings and monuments for its need and convenience (or even vanity). However, does it have the mandate to demolish and dislocate what have been nurtured and enriched over decades?
The absence of a convincing justification for converting buildings of heritage value into rubble and displacing objects of incalculable value has made the Central Vista project a matter of national and international bewilderment and concern.
This act will leave a tragic void of regret, remorse and pain in the nation’s conscience. Can a government elected for a term of five years, justify such a mammoth demolition splurge, leading to irreversible consequences and irreplaceable losses, all of which could have been prevented? A preventable tragedy is far more agonising than an unavoidable catastrophe.
K. Jayakumar is a former chief secretary of Kerala and the founding vice-chancellor of Malayalam University. He also served as a joint secretary in the Ministry of Culture.