In the last few weeks, India has been devastated by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since April, more than 11 million new cases have been detected and 94,000 people have died of COVID-19. Hospitals have run of beds, oxygen and other medical supplies. Crematoriums and graveyards in the country have been overflowing with the bodies of the dead.
But in the middle of this unprecedented crisis, there is one ‘essential service’ that is still continuing. This essential service is the redevelopment of the Central Vista in Delhi, a prestige project of the BJP.
The Wire breaks down what this project is, what planners and architects have to say about it, and how it is able to continue in the middle of the worst phase of the pandemic.
Before we start, let’s go back in history for a moment.
Imagine a sprawling Roman Empire, great and glorious. It’s 67 AD and the emperor’s name is ‘Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus’.
You might be familiar with his other name, a shorter, more memorable one that’s used to describe leaders in today’s time: Nero. As in a leader who fiddles while things around them are burning.
But we’re getting ahead of our story so let me go back.
As history has it, Nero wanted to rebuild Rome in a more modern and contemporary fashion. His ministers, however, refused to let that happen.
But shortly afterwards, a fire broke out.
A fire so terrible that it burned down 10 of Rome’s 14 districts.
And then, when the ashes had barely settled, Nero ordered the construction of a ‘Golden Palace.’ 200 acres huge, overlaid with gold and studded with diamonds. A sight to behold.
All of this, while the rest of his empire was still coping, trying to survive with what little they had left.
Now, a little disclaimer. Any resemblance drawn from this historical anecdote to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.
In the last few weeks India has been reeling from the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the start of April this year, more than 11 million new cases have been detected and 94,000 people have died from COVID-19. Hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and other medical supplies. Crematoriums and graveyards overflowing with the bodies of the dead. And with experts saying the worst is yet to come, it’s clear that India is now the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic anywhere in the world.
But, in the middle of this unprecedented crisis, there is one ‘essential service’ that is still continuing. We’re not talking about the construction of hospitals or massive oxygen plants or anything to tackle the pandemic. It’s the ongoing work at the ‘Central Vista Project’ which has been deemed an ‘essential service’ despite the raging pandemic.
So even as the whole of Delhi is locked down to ensure the virus’s cycle of transmission is broken, work on the Central Vista project is proceeding apace with hundreds of workers bussed in everyday to make sure this important work is completed on schedule.
But what is this Central Vista Project and what is its schedule? What do planners and architects have to say regarding this project? And why is it being constructed at a time when the country is neck-deep in sickness and death?
What is the Central Vista project?
The Central Vista Project is essentially a redevelopment project, intended to reimagine the ‘power corridor of India’.
The Central Vista is the stretch of land between Rashtrapati Bhavan, which sits at the top of Raisina Hill, and India Gate.
The project has four elements. First is the construction of a new parliament building. Second, the demolition of nearly a dozen existing buildings, some of them landmark edifices like the National Museum. Third, the construction of seven-storey high government offices in a three-km stretch alongside Rajpath, which today represents a vast green space much loved by Delhi’s residents. Fourth, construction of a new residence and office block for the prime minister and vice president.
The project also includes converting North and South Block – which currently house the defence, finance, home and external affairs ministries – into museums, while those ministries shift into the new office blocks being built on the Central Vista.
And the current parliament building is to be turned into a ‘museum of democracy’, which the historian Ramachandra Guha says is grimly appropriate since museums are for things that are dead or extinct.
The Central Vista project intends to make the existing Parliament Building a “Museum for Democracy”.
This is grimly appropriate, since Museums are for things that are dead or extinct.
Thus South Africa has an Apartheid Museum.
And India will one day have a Museum for Democracy.
— Ramachandra Guha (@Ram_Guha) April 20, 2020
Such a project would be deemed unnecessary and extravagant at the best of times. But there’s more.
What do planners and architects have to say?
When the project was first announced in 2019, it was met with disbelief by architects and urban planners, who faulted it on aesthetic, cultural, environmental and financial grounds. Apart from disrupting the character of a century old heritage zone, the project is typical of urban planning that privileges authority over citizens, where land – around 80 acres – is being removed from public use and reserved for the government.
The Central Vista today is a city centre that belongs to the people. For the past 70 years, they have thronged there in large numbers.
But once the Central Vista Project is complete, the government and its buildings will dominate everything and ordinary citizens will effectively be fenced out of what is obviously going to become a high security zone.
The Central Vista Project represents the Modi government’s desire to create a city that is “world class” but the fact is that the Central Vista today is regarded as one of the most spectacular city centres in the world.
Which brings us back to another point. The architect for this grand project, Bimal Patel, has compared it to the likes of the National Mall in Washington DC. The National Mall in some ways is like the Rajpath in India, it’s a corridor of power.
Writing in The Wire, architect Rajeev Bhakat makes an insightful comparison of the two sites. He notes that over the years, the National Mall has been modified to have a greater degree of ‘publicness’ that Modi’s Central Vista plan seems to have ignored.
The Washington Mall and Rajpath differ in another crucial aspect too, says Bhakat.
Most Rajpath buildings are designed with “setbacks” – they are located deep within land parcels behind high boundary walls. In contrast, most plots on the Washington Mall are “built on edge”, in other words the buildings are built right up to the public street edge or greens with no boundary walls. This makes them immediately visually, tactilely accessible, he says. The only building with boundary walls on the Washington Mall is the White House.
Why should this matter? Because, as Bhakat says, accessibility and the ability to touch help to democratise the state. “If government buildings are imposing, far away from the street or hidden behind walls, they propagate a culture of people seeing their government as imposing, distant, far from them and even hidden”.
Lutyens’s “original design” was a colonial, undemocratic one based on boundary walls and dominant symmetry, says Bhakat, and “clearly did not envision the common people of India on the lawns of Central Vista.”
1947 changed that. The people claimed those lawns and the Central Vista as their own.
And now Modi is turning the clock back. The leader who prided himself on being an ‘outsider’ to Lutyens’ Delhi is strengthening a colonial vision of the city centre in which imposing government edifices are meant to overawe the people and show them who’s boss.
Then there are the concerns of pollution and traffic, as Central Delhi, which functions as the lungs of Delhi because of its green, open spaces and tree cover, makes way for huge sarkari buildings. Trees will be cut, and though there is a promise of transplantation, this is easier said than done.
In a democracy, governed by the rule of law, the least one can expect is transparency, public consultation, and adherence to environmental, heritage and building codes, as well as the Master Plan for the city. But all of these have been sacrificed at the altar of Narendra Modi’s desire to leave his imprint on the heart of the capital.
How is the project being constructed in the middle of a pandemic?
In November 2020, concerned citizens filed 10 separate petitions challenging the project. The Supreme Court heard them out but held back from pronouncing judgment.
The Centre, however, rushed ahead and soon launched its construction work for the project.
While the court slammed the Centre and ordered a stop to all construction work, it nevertheless allowed the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the new parliament building to be held.
Finally, in January 2021, the Supreme Court, in a 2:1 verdict, allowed the Central Vista Project to continue.
And ever since then, not even the devastating second wave of COVID-19 has been able to slow the project down. While the whole of Delhi has locked down, the government granted permission for the Central Vista work to continue, classifying it, incredibly, as “an essential service”.
Earlier this month, an urgent petition was filed in the Delhi high court seeking to halt the work because of the pandemic. But despite the obvious urgency, the court set May 17 as the next date of hearing.
The petition, argued by senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, suggests that the construction risks even more lives as India’s COVID cases continue to peak. He went to the Supreme Court to request a speedy hearing and the court directed the high court to “consider” his request.
Meanwhile, the project continues in full swing, with workers being ferried across Delhi to complete the grand 20,000 crore rupees project.
As photographs of the ongoing work emerge, questions are being asked, in India, and abroad, about what the government’s priorities are.
Last year, when the pandemic was just getting underway, Narayan Moorthy, an architect involved with Lok Path, a group of concerned citizens opposed to the Central Vista project, contrasted the Rs 20,000 crore earmarked for the project with what the same money could do for public health.
The questions the critics are raising are unavoidable because this is a time when much of the capital and most of India is attempting to survive each day. Standing in queues outside oxygen plants, hospitals, crematoriums and graveyards.
Urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri has defended the project by saying four things: government projects must go on regardless of the pandemic; the demand for a new parliament building goes back to 2012, when the Congress was in power; the money allocated for COVID-19 vaccines is Rs 35,000 crore, which is more than what will be spent on the Central Vista over several years; and that Congress governments are also pursuing their own prestige projects.
Let us consider these arguments one by one.
First, the demand for a new parliament may go back to 2012 but the demand for good public hospitals and greater expenditure on healthcare goes back even further. Why is the Modi government not acting on that demand, especially when a pandemic is on?
Second, surely questions of public health are far too important to be sacrificed at the altar of political rivalry. So what the Congress did or is doing can hardly justify the perverse priorities now on display in New Delhi.
Third, yes, government work must carry on during the pandemic, but surely we must get our priorities straight. If the government has the money and the administrative skill to construct a new parliament or a new mansion for Narendra Modi, aren’t those resources better deployed in quickly building new hospitals and oxygen plants for the current surge of COVID-19 and for the third wave that its own scientific experts are now saying India needs to be prepared for?
Fourth, it is all very well saying so many crores have been set aside for vaccines when the fact is that there is an acute shortage of vaccines and the number of vaccinations being given is falling rather than rising.
Now, in court, the government has come up with another bizarre argument: it says it is not pursuing the Central Vista project during the pandemic but only building public amenities on Rajpath. However, it has no explanation for why it must rush to provide these so-called amenities when the public is either locked down or obliged to follow social-distancing protocols, and will not be able to use them for many, many more months.
There are, in fact, two separate issues at stake here. First, whether the Central Vista Project needed at all. And second, whether this is the time to pursue it at breakneck speed. On the first, even though the arguments against the project are strong, the critics and proponents can surely agree to disagree. But on the second, it is absurd that there should even be a debate.