In early September, 2019, the Government of India launched a pre-emptive, surgical “attack” on the Central Vista in New Delhi by proposing to redevelop it into a “world class tourist centre”.
The “enemy” is the public – comprising citizens of India and others worldwide – who admire the design and setting of the Central Vista, and consider it an iconic symbol of India’s capital. Additionally, they believe that its genealogy and complex history compellingly infuse the site with the ‘idea of India’. Like the culture of the country, this site too had witnessed multiple histories, and its transformation from an imperial symbol to the seat of a vibrant democracy provided the cherished evidence of civilisational continuity.
The reason given to redevelop the site was to construct a new parliament building, accommodate a common central secretariat and upgrade facilities and amenities in the Central Vista. Prima facie, this appeared unnecessary and tendentious. Large urban redevelopment projects were being carried out all over the country in order to make them “world class”. At Central Vista, however, except for the need to address some long pending maintenance issues, no one thought of the area as degraded or in need of transformation, let alone the radical changes that the government was proposing.
In fact, the proposal was so shocking, that I use the words “attack” and “enemy” consciously, to convey what many actually felt about what they considered an assault on a universally valued heritage precinct. I also use the war metaphor, because, the Ministry of Urban Development, the project proponent, handled the proposal not as a public welfare project but as a state secret whose objectives had to be veiled from public scrutiny.
Normally, such projects are widely discussed, public opinion is elicited, even exhaustive studies are conducted to establish the relevant issues that should be addressed. Such transparency not only imbues the need to spend public money with credibility, but ensures a feeling of inclusivity and therefore cooperation from the public. On the contrary, this project was drafted in secret and now information is being dispensed on a need-to-know basis. And who was it they wanted to keep it secret from? The citizens of India, putative owners of this civic space.
Citizens reacted. Architects and urban planners among them got together (for the first time, according to many) and discussed their grievances and concerns. Artists and other agitated members of civil society joined in to form a broad coalition of citizens opposed to what was being increasingly recognised as an egregious project. In the absence of project details, the critics tried to figure out what the government intended, what they hoped to achieve, and analysed the implications in order to rationally formulate their reservations regarding the redevelopment.
This group of professionals and concerned citizens also tried to engage the government – and the appointed consultant – to discuss the issues they had identified, but to date, they have received no response from the powers that be. The initial secrecy has now become strategic silence, broken infrequently to make targeted power-point presentations to select interested interlocutors. Meanwhile, steady progress is being made on a range of necessary amendments to regulations and planning norms, making a mockery of the established protocols and processes of urban development. Nevertheless, the public has put on record a well-reasoned critique via articles in the media, holding public meetings, filing formal objections with various statutory authorities, and finally, also moving the courts. Although the matter is sub judice, the government continues with the project regardless.
Substantial information about the project is now available in the public domain. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has been persuaded to notify change of land use to construct many of the new buildings proposed, including the new parliament. The law mandates, for example, that for large development projects the entire project details must be revealed for consideration by approving statutory authorities, but the government is obtaining these approvals piecemeal, thus suppressing relevant facts and thereby vitiating the objectives of evaluating the overall impact of the project on residents, the environment and city infrastructure.
Critics have duly represented their objections, but these are opaquely dismissed, thus enabling the government to obtain the stamp of approval from the statutory authorities and claim that they have followed due process. The government appears to have perfected the art of governance by following the imperatives of ‘rule by law’, and avoiding the inconvenience of adhering to the necessities of the ‘rule of law’, to facilitate their work.
The critics are trying to make sense of what the government is doing. They are trying to come to terms with it. I have come to the conclusion that we are all misreading the objective of this redevelopment project. We have taken what the government is telling us about the project, its need and the rationale for meeting those needs, at face value. Accordingly, we have offered, in good faith, honest and sincere advice to help them and the project.
I recall that when the design was first unveiled to the public in late November, 2019, many individuals and professional groups decided to cooperate with the consultant and the government and offer to assist them. Even I felt that the project was redeemable. Professional bodies like the Institute of Urban Designers, India (IUDI), The Indian Society of Landscape Architects (ISOLA), and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), felt the same way, and coordinated their advice over several meetings, and drafted a comprehensive note, which they sent to both the consultant and the minister of urban development. There was no response, except the invitations to attend power-point presentations by the consultant. An honest desire for dialogue has now turned to skepticism and further, frustration. It is these circumstances that motivated me to try and understand the inexplicable behaviour of the government.
The focus of this piece is therefore not on the details of Central Vista redevelopment, but on the covert rationale that is driving it. There is obviously more riding on the project than meets the eye. What is the urgent compulsion for a democratically elected government to spend over Rs. 20,000 crores on this contentious project? Given mounting evidence of a sluggish economy, voices of concern had been raised even before the project was announced regarding the huge outlay of public money on for instance, bullet trains and massive statues. Now, with COVID-19 and the imperative to alleviate the hardships it is imposing on the “collarless” citizens of the country and on immediate health needs, this extravagance borders on wanton and perfidious. I have tried to join some random dots from what we know about the project, to see if a pattern can be discerned, and this is what the joined dots indicate.
What’s driving Modi’s plan
The bid document issued to select the consultant for the project, states the following objectives:
A new Master Plan is to be drawn up for the entire Central Vista area that represents the values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity and is rooted in the Indian Culture and social milieu…These new iconic structures shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least
The document goes on to specify some project deadlines that merit serious consideration: it stated, for example, that the new parliament building should be completed by July 2022, which would be in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence, and that the entire redevelopment should be completed by March, 2024, which would be before the next general elections, and coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Pegging project deadlines to meet significant historical or event milestones is not unusual, but it is revealing, because it always highlights the subliminal significance that a dry statement of intent does not.
Completing the redevelopment of Central Vista by 2024 is critical for Prime Minister Modi because it would, on the one hand, indelibly mark the success of his second term in office, and on the other, neatly coincide with the centenary of the founding of the BJP’s ideological mentors, and parent body, the RSS. The RSS has, among other deep agendas, the well-known objective of erasing all non-Hindu heritage in the country. The BJP is similarly inclined.
In 2013, for example, the then Government of India, applied to UNESCO to nominate Shahjahanabad and Colonial New Delhi to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The application was in its final stages of submission and had the support of the Delhi government, but in the meantime, Narendra Modi was elected as prime minister and the BJP came to power. Modi promptly had the application withdrawn.
I was closely involved and led the team that drafted the dossier for UNESCO and lobbied for its nomination on behalf of the government; I know that there was no factor other than the prime minister’s bias to justify this volte face by the government. No Mughal or British complex could represent India or its culture on his watch. I am persuaded that the significance of the Central Vista as a symbol in stone of both the ‘idea of India’ and of colonial Delhi is as important to Modi as it is to the RSS; to ensure that it is redeveloped and completed by 2024, therefore, is a non-negotiable target for the government.
Bimal Patel, the consultant in charge of conceptualising and supervising its implementation is important for achieving this ideological goal. He has been Modi’s architect-of-choice for many projects that Modi undertaken in the past including the Vishwanath Dham redevelopment project at Varanasi, the Sabarmati River front development in Ahmedabad, and many other Gujarat government projects. In 2016, he wrote a laudatory opinion piece on Narendra Modi in the Indian Express. In the context of the new vision ushered in by Modi, he said New Delhi’s colonial heritage is an anomaly, and advocated the need to, “…untether ourselves from the past and more fully embrace the future”.
In professional circles it is well known that he enjoys the prime minister’s confidence and it came as no surprise to them when he was selected as the consultant to undertake the Central Vista project following a farcical and hastily organised “bidding” process. To blunt criticism, the principles of ‘rule by law’ were duly followed.
Critics maybe upset at Patel’s proposal for Central Vista, but it is important to note that it complies with Narendra Modi’s and RSS’s political agenda.
Patel’s design for a ‘modern’ Central Vista that “represents the values and aspirations of New India” has subtly eviscerated the colonial heritage of the site without demolishing the iconic buildings. It empties out North and South Blocks by relocating the ministries they accommodated to the new buildings flanking the Central Vista, and repurposes them as museums dedicated to exhibit artefacts of ‘Indian civilisation’.
His new Parliament building will be topped with a modern shikhar, a few modest centimetres lower than India Gate, and the old building will be dedicated to presenting the progress of ‘Indian’ democracy. The Central Vista will now be dominated by a phalanx of multistoried government office buildings for accommodating the staff of the Indian government, but will retain the lawns, trees and water channels the colonial government built. This enormously popular, and democratic public space will be turned into a gated security area, but still be available to record selfies.
These proposals are Machiavellian in their brilliance, because they blunt criticism by not demolishing the British era buildings or its visual aspect, but give them an ‘Indian’ content and context. This design strategy, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, is urban development as the continuation of politics by other means. Modi himself could not have envisaged a neater resolution to fulfill his, and the RSS’s, agenda.
Modi is determined to deliver a centenary gift to the RSS. It will add a feather in his hat which, in an election year (2024), could help him get re-elected. This is his moment, and he will exploit it, all criticisms and objections notwithstanding. He has no credible political opposition: he did not find it necessary to consult them to build a new parliament. His ministers obligingly genuflect when they are tasked to do a job: urban development minister Hardeep Puri, formerly a distinguished diplomat, for example, willingly ignored the protocols of democratic governance when he proclaimed that the redevelopment of Central Vista that was being implemented was Modiji’s “dream”. That is one of the random dots I have joined to reveal the hidden motivation behind this project.
The bureaucracy and its vaunted steel-frame has been reduced to being mere pen-pushers, eager to please. The judiciary too, is now ‘committed’. The Chief Justice of India recently declined to entertain a plea against the construction of the new parliament building, saying that in the larger context of COVID, it was not important. Nothing, it seems can stop Modi from fulfilling his, and the RSS’s ideological agenda. What is stated in the bid document is a smoke screen to veil the project’s covert agenda. This is why the government is deaf to its critics. The Central Vista project is about what Narendra Modi wants, not about what the Central Vista – or Delhi, or India – needs.