In Central Vista Redevelopment, the Fate of Our Heritage Hangs in Balance

With the National Museum set to be demolished, there is no clarity yet about what will happen to the culturally important collection it currently houses.

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Under the master plan for the Central Vista Redevelopment, the National Museum at Delhi is scheduled to be demolished, with its site taken over by new governmental office buildings that constitute a Common Central Secretariat. The statutory ratification of this proposal has already begun in a plan submitted by the government for environmental approval.

The redevelopment removes public institutions that sustain culture and heritage from the Central Vista, replacing them with government offices and facilities. In the land use changes ratified to implement the project, over 80 acres of land devoted to the land-use “Public/Semi-Public” have been changed to a land-use of “Government Office.” Many citizens have expressed anguish over how the spatial heart of our democracy is being transformed from a public landscape energised by cultural institutions to become a space dominated by the visual spectacle of governmental bureaucracy.

The government has sought to counter this criticism by asserting that public space is actually being enhanced in the redevelopment. The architect of the project has made presentations, and the minister for housing and urban affairs has made statements, claiming:

  • North and South Blocks will be converted into the new National Museum.
  • A 50-acre Arboretum/Biodiversity Park is being carved out of the President’s Estate on its western boundary.
  • The original ‘ridge-to-river’ intent of the Lutyens/Baker plan for Central Vista is being implemented by extending the axis till the west bank of the Yamuna where a new 20-acre park is being planned.

The proposals for the parks on the riverbank and in the President’s Estate do not change the character of the main vista, as they are in spaces that do not form part of the same experience.

The riverbank is over three kilometres away and the spatial continuity of the axis of the Central Vista is disrupted by the presence of the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, so it will not form a part of the Central Vista experience (and we will leave aside, for another day, the discussion on locating a park, of the kind currently proposed, on the flood plain of a river). And the park within the President’s Estate will be entered from Mother Teresa Avenue to the west of Rashtrapati Bhavan, whereas the spatial experience of Central Vista is designed to terminate on its western end at the east facade of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Among the new proposals of the redevelopment project, any claim to enhance the public character of Central Vista rests on the conversion of North and South Block into the National Museum. And there are causes for concern here:

  • In the land-use changes ratified to implement this project, the land-use of the parcels containing North and South Block has not been changed. They still show in the official record as “Government Use”.  No proposal to change this land-use to “Public/Semi-Public”, the expected land use for a museum, has surfaced till date.  Incidentally, the park to be carved out of the President’s Estate is also absent from the current land-use record.
  • Both North and South Block are listed Grade-I heritage structures. Any change to their usage, as well as any modifications to their interior layouts, has to go through prior approval by the Heritage Conservation Committee of Delhi. No such proposal has surfaced to date.
  • A feasibility study is needed to analyse whether North and South Blocks are workable sites for a national museum. Such a study would have to examine whether the total area available is adequate, the suitability of the current architectural arrangement to convert office spaces into galleries (major structural changes to a Grade-I heritage structure are prohibited), and the availability of necessary support spaces such as parking, storage, and the kind of air-conditioning plant needed for a museum. No such study, or the intent to conduct such a study, has surfaced to date.
  • These structures will be in close proximity to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Prime Minister’s Office and Residence, as well as the Vice-President’s Residence. This demands a security audit/analysis to examine the feasibility, in such a location, of a facility that attracts substantive public crowds. No such study, or the intent to conduct such a study, has surfaced to date.

This gives cause to fear that the announcement to convert North and South Blocks into the National Museum is not a genuine intention and is only a temporary measure designed to counter current public criticism on the loss of public space. Once the fervour of this critique becomes muted by the passage of time, and construction on the rest of the project has reached a stage that makes it a fait accompli, new information on feasibility and security concerns may emerge, forcing a ‘reluctant’ admission that this proposed relocation of the museum is no longer possible, and the museum must be shifted out of the Central Vista precinct.

The Central Vista plan includes a new parliament building next to the current one. Photo: HCP Designs

This fear is given further credence by a recent announcement that the government intends to set up several new museums in the National Capital Region. The announcement states that one of these museums, which is on Gautama Buddha, will be “seen through the masterpieces in the National Museum collection,” which opens up the possibility of dispersing this collection to locations outside Central Vista. More ominous is the usage of phrases such as “telling unheard stories” and “forging a new outlook” to describe the intent of these new museums, raising concerns of an intent to revise our heritage record in order to conform to a predetermined ideological slant.

The track record of the Union Ministry of Culture in shifting or renovating museums is not great. A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, tabled in parliament in September 2020, contains severe criticism of the renovation of Indian Museum Kolkata, defining serious and fundamental lacunae such as damaging priceless artefacts during modernisation work, lacking any proper conservation plan, not following conservation processes, assigning work to an agency with no expertise in conservation and completely ignoring storage and upkeep of reserved artefacts even though they constitute over 90% of the collection and are susceptible to heat and humidity.

One shudders to think of what may happen if such a cavalier approach is taken in the National Museum which hosts a priceless collection of cultural artefacts, unparalleled in their value to the nation’s heritage. No disclosure has been made on how the conservation of artefacts will be done during this shift, nor do we know the level of expertise that has been called on to steer this process. We also do not know whether there will be a large gap in time during this project when the collection will not be available to scholars and the public during the shift. Given the cultural importance of this collection, this time should ideally be held to the absolute minimum.

Similar concerns apply to the National Archives Buildings designed by Edwin Lutyens, the only one of the four buildings of the cultural hub meant for the middle of Central Vista which was built as a part of the colonial project. The first plan for the redevelopment, on the basis of which the architect was selected, called for the demolition of this building. Consequently, when a furore started about demolishing a Grade-I listed heritage structure, the plan was modified to preserve the Lutyens building, but demolish the annexe building, which also houses valuable archives, and construct a new annexe to the north of the Lutyens block, stating that the National Archives will remain on this site. The reason for needing to demolish this annexe is not clear, and the only visible reason appears to be to make room for a set of identical office buildings that form the Common Central Secretariat, and surely, we should expect a greater design ingenuity in this precious site than one that cannot see beyond a bureaucratic repetition of office blocks. We have no information on the plan to manage the risk to the archives, both in the annexe, which is to be demolished, as well as the original building which will now be in the heart of a construction site. We do now know how long the archives will be inaccessible to scholars. And there is contradiction here too on the land-use, which has been changed from “Public/Semi-Public” to “Government Office”: a change that does not make sense if the intention is to preserve the National Archives on this site.

We desperately need an open and frank disclosure of all that is happening at the National Museum and the National Archives. This should not, and cannot, remain in the status quo of partial information, contradictory assertions, and lack of reassurance on the care being taken over the precious collections they hold. Cultural heritage is not a matter of official narratives, it is one that, at its core, is a matter of public memory, and this demands that all significant decisions affecting heritage aspire to the highest degree of public transparency, disclosure, and consultation.