New Delhi: Sixty retired civil servants have written an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri to express their “grave concerns about the Central Vista Redevelopment Project currently planned in the most iconic heritage precinct of New Delhi.”
They have noted that the “redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage nature of this precinct, and destroy it irrevocably”. Also, they have cautioned that “The redevelopment planned will, moreover cause severe environmental damage.”
The retired IAS, IFS and IPS officers from all over India have stated that they do not subscribe to any particular political ideology and the idea behind the letter was only to “focus upon issues that have a bearing upon the Indian Constitution and issues of democracy.”
‘Selection procedure was flawed’
The former civil servants have written that they are writing at a time when “the preliminaries for the execution of the first building among many in this area, viz. the new Parliament building have already been obtained as seen in the national news.” This, they said, has happened “despite widespread, and very relevant opposition from the public and innumerable flaws in the selection procedure.”
Referring to how “India and its capital Delhi are the proud possessors of this remarkable, historical precinct, known as the Central Vista, built during the British Raj, but nurtured, savoured and celebrated largely in the post-Independence era,” the letter noted that any interventions to change this area, accorded Grade 1 heritage status under the extant Unified Building Bye Laws of Delhi, needs to be “mindful of this history”.
`Construction would destroy heritage, cause environmental damage’
They said that not only will the “construction and redesign on the scale planned in the redevelopment project” significantly affect the heritage nature of this area and destroy, there would also be “environmental damage” due to it.
“This precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the city, with its dense mature tree canopies serving as a repository of bio diversity and the vast lawns of the Vista as a watershed for the city between the Ridge and the Yamuna. Constructing a large number of multi-storeyed office buildings, with basements, in this open area will create congestion and irreversibly change and damage the environment,” the letter cautioned.
It also raised the issue of how greenery was closely related to environmental pollution in the city. “Delhi already suffers from enormous environmental pollution. To plan something which will increase this pollution many, many times, not merely during the construction phase but also subsequently, is clearly a thoughtless and irresponsible act,” the civil servants wrote.
`Area would no longer remain a recreational space for the masses’
They also raised the issue of how the Central Vista was also a recreational space and the project would change that character. “A third purpose that the Central Vista serves at present is as a recreational space for the whole city. Families throng the area on summer nights to sit around in the open air and enjoy the occasional ice-cream – innocent and inexpensive pleasures which they will be deprived of once the Vista’s character undergoes a change.”
The letter stated that “one must realise that open spaces which are gated or surrounded by government office buildings are not the same as public open spaces where citizens are free to carry out routine activities of recreation and celebration or even of peaceful protest. Governments hold public land in a fiduciary capacity and large scale changes based on flawed perceptions should not have place in a democratic country.”
The letter also noted how the “conceptualisation of the project” was flawed. “Rather than establishing the necessity of the project with sound prior studies on environmental and technical parameters, this project began, if reports are to be believed, because of a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky’, as well as with the thought of leaving a particular government and its leader’s impress on the architecture of Delhi.”
Little transparency, consultations
It also averred to how there was lack of transparency and consultations around the project. “There was no parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by any public consultation or expert review. Instead a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm in what was an extremely flawed process.”
The letter also stated that the selected architectural firm appears to have been given carte blanche to make whatever changes it wishes, with all government departments seemingly mandated to do whatever is required to enable the firm’s actions. “The selection of the firm and the processes employed to do so leave a lot of questions unanswered. It is also pertinent to note that there has been no accessible explicit exhibition of the scheme drawings, data or preceding studies for domain experts or common citizens to understand what exactly is planned in this very important public space. This goes against all democratic norms,” the letter stated.
`Construction of new parliament building may endanger old building’
The letter also cautioned that constructing a second Parliament building in close proximity to the existing one would diminish the existing parliament building and might even endanger its foundations. It said “preliminary studies have shown that the existing Parliament can be repurposed to meet the requirement of expansion and modernisation. Indeed, this is the norm for all heritage structures including Parliament buildings all over the world.”
As for the premise that there was a “necessity to concentrate offices of the Central Government in one place”, the civil servants wrote that “this is against the basic tenets of the Master Plan of Delhi which stipulates that no new offices should be built in New Delhi and that efforts should be made to decongest it.”
Pulling down existing buildings makes no monetary, symbolic sense
Stating that “much of the plan is shrouded in secrecy”, the letter noted that the proposal “calls for the demolition of four Bhawans built in the 1960s, the iconic National Museum, Vigyan Bhawan, the fairly recently built IGNCA, and the very new and expensive Ministry of External Affairs buildings.” Questioning these moves, it said: “Other than the value, both monetary and symbolic embedded in these buildings, this flies in the face of the principles of conservation and the basic tenets of sustainability.”
The civil servants also observed that earlier letters by eminent professional bodies have been ignored by the ministry. They said it was also “sad to note that approvals of empowered supervisory bodies like the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Vista Committee have been pushed through” and clearances were given despite the matters being sub judice.
Finally, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, when enormous funds are required for strengthening the public health system, to provide sustenance to people and to rebuild the economy, the letter said “taking up a proposal to redesign the entire Central Vista at a cost of at least Rs 20,000 crores, a figure likely to escalate significantly, seems particularly irresponsible. It seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.”
They, thus urged, that the project be stopped forthwith.