The Ambitious Visionaries of NITI Aayog Are Ignorant of India's Hard Realities

Despite the fact that the pandemic has pushed many more into poverty in India, both Amitabh Kant and Sanjeev Sanyal of the NITI Aayog present an illusion that India is poised for economic prosperity, ignoring the real challenges at hand.

In a couple of recent articles, Amitabh Kant, the chief executive officer of Niti Aayog, and Sanjeev Sanyal, the chief economic adviser, paint extravagant visions of the new era of growth and prosperity that may be expected in the country.

Kant has detailed a list of schemes that he refers to as governance and economic reforms that will address critical bottlenecks holding back the country’s growth. He mentions various schemes that the government has initiated over the last six years to uplift the poor, but fails to evaluate to what extent such schemes have been successful. There is no mention of the small number of actual beneficiaries who received what they were promised.

Because of the pandemic, alternative online education was supposed to be made available extensively, but how many children were given the computers that they had been promised, or taught how to use them?

Also read: The Lockdown Revealed the Extent of Poverty and Misery Faced by Migrant Workers

The serious effect of the lockdown announced without warning on March 24, 2020, resulting in the loss of livelihood opportunities for 279 million daily wage earners and self-employed, is ignored. The economic and social setback suffered by a large section of the population, it is presumed, does not need the government to make amends for.

It is, however, necessary to invest in future development based on tech-driven platforms with the private sector building solutions on top, for which it would be necessary to develop competitiveness in the sunrise sectors to develop electric mobility and battery storage.

A mention is made of the potential in digital health and education, food processing, mobile manufacturing, networking products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and photovoltaic systems, and the planning associated with all such projects.

Amitabh Kant and Sanjeev Sanyal of the NITI Aayog. Illustration: The Wire/Wikipedia.

Critical elements like the need for proper planning and the involvement of development professionals, such as architects, town planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and ecologists, etc., do not figure in this ambitious corporate vision.

No mention is made of the large number of NGOs who have already been working at the ground level and do useful work. These do not form part of the action plan, because this will be left to private entrepreneurs and foreign investment agencies who will help in building and transforming our future towns and cities.

Misplaced priorities

The article, ‘The New Architecture of a New India’, by Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser, attempts to justify the proposed redevelopment of the Central Vista without any mention of the colossal cost involved. It would have been good had he shed some light on the economics of the proposal, as an economic evaluation of the implications of the project would have helped clarify a number of important issues that are sought to be glossed over.

To begin with, it would be good to know how many new government office buildings for different ministries have been built in the different parts of the capital during the last decade, and how much money has been spent on implementing these projects. What will happen to these buildings after the Central Vista proposals are implemented?

Also read: The Folly and Vanity of the Project to Redesign Delhi

Along with this, it would be good to evaluate how many ambitious new office projects, like the World Trade Centre and the office complex in East Kidwai Nagar, are in the process of being implemented by National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC). Is the government establishing itself as a developer to make profits from development projects?

On one hand, it would like to stop planning and hand over all urban development to corporate agencies, and on the other hand, it seeks to make unreasonable profits through NBCC, which has been entrusted with several projects worth thousands of crores, including the building of all new government housing in the entire area from Moti Bagh to Kidwai Nagar.

Sanjeev Sanyal believes that the implementation of the Central Vista project will modernise the physical infrastructure of the government in accordance with the aspirations and needs of our time. The government needs modern buildings and physical infrastructure to better serve 21st century India. The reason for building iconic new buildings is to renew our cities and give them the stamp of our times.

He along with Bimal Patel, the Prime Minister’s chosen architect, seems to have no idea of the background and history of the city which they are so anxious to reconstruct. They have not seen what the cities of Shahjehanabad and New Delhi were like at the time of Independence in 1947, and how the current urban settlement extending to both sides of the river Yamuna has evolved.

From a population of 1.3 million in 1950 in a series of overgrown villages and scattered resettlement colonies, the National Capital Region (NCR) has grown to accommodate a population of over 3 million people today. Approximately 60% constitute the Lower Income Group, who are daily wage earners and the self-employed.

These are the people whose lives were disrupted overnight with the announcement of a complete lockdown on March 24, 2020. They lost their source of income, they had to leave their homes because they could not pay their rent, and chose to head back home to their villages in order to survive.

These are the people who were living five to six persons in a room, in four to five storey walkup apartments built on 25 sq mt plots. Such houses crowded together are the reality of urban villages and unauthorised colonies where the majority of people live in the nation’s capital.

There is no open space for the children to play, and there are virtually no schools or health centres or any form of community facilities within walking distance. These are the people for whom the public open space of places like the Central Vista, Connaught Place, and the Zoo constitute an escape from the suffocating conditions in which they are forced to live.

Crowded cities, poverty and poor governance

The visionaries of Niti Aayog need to go and see for themselves what conditions are like in such residential areas before handing over large areas of public land to the government and corporate agencies for development.

Ensconced in the luxurious bungalows of Lutyens Bungalow zone or the newly created lavish apartments at New Netaji Nagar, they seem to have lost sight of the reality that exists.

They dream of transforming all our cities with the fourth industrial revolution that will usher in a new era of growth and prosperity, along with a new architecture that will be symbolic of our times. A vision that will be more illusion than reality for a long time to come, actually increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Sanyal stresses the fact that we need new iconic buildings as landmarks of our time. Will this 10-storey high wall of buildings along both sides of Central Vista be symbolic of our time? Are these rigid blocks of government offices lined up along both sides of this major avenue an example of the bubbling ecosystem that is ever-changing and evolving that he has written about? All great cities and societies evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past.

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

According to him, the vast public space of Central Vista can certainly be part of this change. “Let us not hesitate to destroy and rebuild,” he says! This organic process of evolution is what provides the dynamism of a city and a people.

This, he believes, is the underlying thinking behind the Central Vista project. Is it indeed? Let us be honest about it and call it for what it is. It is the same as Albert Speer’s vision to recreate large parts of Berlin as per his master’s dictate. On one hand, all this is a spiel about modernism and change, but on the other hand, a short-sighted vision of a series of massive office structures dominating a major public space connected by an underground tunnel with a people mover in a safe and protected space, unaffected by the foul polluted air in the open spaces above.

Also read: Why the Redevelopment of Delhi’s Central Vista Is a Matter of Grave Concern

With artificial intelligence today, it is possible to have large numbers of people interacting and exchanging thoughts and ideas even as they are far apart in different locations, maybe even in different countries. But the government of our day wants to have its 70,000 workers interacting face to face. Forget about the pandemic, they can all wear masks.

Sanyal refers to the gigantic Chhatrapati Shivaji statue to be built out at sea in Mumbai as representational of the aspirations and cultural mooring of 1.35 billion Indians. Is he really suggesting that we need to spend vast sums of money to build many such historic symbols in preference to lifting people out of poverty and hunger, a large number of whom have been consigned to this condition over the last year by the reckless actions of this government?

Do we want to spend vast amounts on ostentatious projects while we are asking the public to contribute a Covid Cess tax for something as important as citizens’ health? This is part of the process of evolution and change in accordance with which the newly built Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the complex for the Ministry of External Affairs, as well as Vigyan Bhawan and the National Museum have to be sacrificed and demolished. All great iconic structures and historic cities are built over the remains and ruins of past times, so why make an issue over destroying parts of our recent history.

The current massive secretariat buildings will be converted into museums and art galleries. How many people will actually visit these places? Why not put the money in smaller neglected museums (like Alwar) all over the country to make them accessible to people who would never get a chance to come to the capital city, and would not dare to enter these grandiose places.

Nevertheless, Lutyens and Baker’s climax to the Central Vista will have plenty of space to house the vast number of relics of our historic past, with the buildings themselves serving as a reminder of the colonial past that we need to put behind us.

The alternative possibility of making such an enormous new complex truly representative of the government of our times with all its symbolic monumentality on any other site has not been seriously considered. But what is the need for monumentality in any case? Why think of that anyway, this is the heart of the city – this is where we want to be.

There happen to be large areas of government land currently occupied by outmoded staff housing in central areas of the city that could be developed to meet this need. The large area from Motibagh to Kidwai Nagar that has been handed over to NBCC could easily be developed as a consolidated multi-use complex with adequate office space. An area well connected both by the Inner Ring Road and the metro-rail. Such a development would, as an urban design concept, make more sense than developing it in bits and pieces with badly designed government housing that is currently being implemented.

There is also a large area of government housing in Ramakrishnapuram between the two ring roads that need rebuilding. Either of these possibilities, however, call for a level of imagination and visualisation well adapted to future possibilities, which is unfortunately not available in the planning team of Niti Aayog. It is so much easier and more tragically historic to pull down what exists and rebuild it.

Sanjeev Sanyal has written extensively on the dynamics of urban development and has perceptively observed the changes taking place across the country. He has mentioned that “a successful city is one that encourages human interaction, has accessible public spaces, conserves historical heritage, is conducive to walking, creates human capital / diversity and mixes commercial and residential areas”.

He also commented on slums being an integral part of cities that must be accepted as part of the process of developing cities. Along with this is the importance of public ‘commons’ that is important to the lives of the poor. He has repeatedly stressed that urbanisation is a dynamic process and cities must be flexible to accommodate growth and change. Cities must change and the organic process of evolution is what provides the dynamism of a city and a people.

In relation to the sensitive comments about the basic elements of successful cities, the proposed Central Vista complex seems an anachronism. Where are the dynamics of mixed use in this vast mass of gated complexes? Where is the flexibility for change over time? The public common space currently overlooked by large fullgrown trees will be replaced by an area overlooked by a massive wall of 10-storey high office blocks on both sides. What a change from the variety of low buildings that include cultural centres, a museum, office buildings with substantial open space, and visible links through parks and trees, connecting to the residential areas beyond.

This dynamic variety is to be replaced by a rigidly controlled new Central Vista Park, which will even be extended to touch the banks of the Yamuna river. Is this an honest expression of the vibrant city that Sanyal has written about?

The cost is not an issue of major concern, as whatever is needed will be collected by raising tariffs and taxes. Why weep over the workers who have left the city. If they wish to have food to eat and survive, they will all come back to work in the city at jobs that will be provided by the generosity of the government’s welfare schemes and the large multi-national corporations that will create untold profits for all concerned.

It is indeed sad to see how values get distorted when one has to justify what is a poorly conceived piece of urban design.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly a Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.