Sachin Shridhar | Central Vista: To build or not to build

Time will judge the work which Bimal Patel produces, but the naysayers have already denounced the baby as ugly even before it is born

India’s population has increased four times from 34 crores in 1947 to 139 crores in 2020. The number of ministries in the Central government has grown from 18 to 51 and government employees from single figures in lakhs 66 lakhs, with 52 lakh pensioners, and growing. The size of our Parliament, in contrast, has gone up from 705 members of both Houses put together in 1952 to only 772 in 2021 -- a rather modest increase of 9.5 per cent in over seven decades. Whereas, in these ensuing decades of Independent India, the sheer scale of government, the myriad pleasant and much more unpleasant ways in which it impacts a citizen’s life and the legislative complexity in managing the affairs of a diverse country has all but multiplied. The physical infrastructure of the country in the last seven decades has grown multifold and yet successive Central governments wedded to some vague romanticised notion of history or perhaps paralysed by inertia had not added a single square foot to the Central Vista, and not even planned for it on the drawing board.

The size of our Parliament is too small by world standards. A constituency with 25-40 lakh voters can barely hold its MP accountable. Compare it with, say, the British, whose Westminster model we have copied. With only seven crore people, the British Parliament has about 630 members of the House of Commons, representing less than seven crore people (five per cent of India). The number of parliamentarians in India is decided by the delimitation commission, and in the past four commissions in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002 sat and fixed the number. In 2026, another commission is due to sit and by 2031 a bigger Parliament of atleast 800-plus Lok Sabha members, if not more, is likely to be constituted. So when should India plan for it, if not now? Left to the constantly fractious culture of discourse we have developed in India, which does not allow anything to be done or built, the new Parliament may have to hold its first session in tents!

That India needs smaller constituencies and a larger Parliament itself is justification enough for a new Parliament building which is larger, more functional, intelligent and energy efficient.

The present secretariat has only 22 of the 51 ministries, while the rest are spread across New Delhi. Besides better and swifter coordination, coming closer and under one roof opens up tremendous possibilities of centralised housekeeping, IT, logistics and eventual cutting down of wastage and peon/clerk flab.

Another misconception, thick on rhetoric and thin on facts, spread by a systematic campaign, is that all old buildings are going to be demolished. The fact, however, is that there are three categories of old buildings: First, old historical ones like Parliament House, North and South Block, which will be retained and repurposed. Second, new ones like the new Parliament House, Combined Central Secretariat, SPG Complex, the PM’s and vice-president’s residences will be built alongside. Third, some buildings will indeed be demolished. It is no one’s case that the buildings like Krishi Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Raksha Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan, IGNCA Annexe, which were built in post-Independent India, are great aesthetic marvels. Most are disjointed PWD-constructed products of their times, which in today’s work environment are costly to maintain, not amenable to ideal fitments required in modern intelligent buildings.

The new Parliament will cost Rs 971 crores ($133 million), in contrast to the various fantastic figures quoted. The work is being done by the bluebloods of Indian infrastructure like the Tatas and Shapoorji Pallonji. The total cost of the entire Central Vista, spread over four years, is Rs 20,000 crores, which with the government’s total annual tax revenue of Rs 20 lakh crores works out to only 0.25 per cent of the tax revenue every year. Not an earth-shattering sum and criminal profligacy as many commentators believe.

The argument then put forward is that given the Covid-19 pandemic, is this really the right time to continue with construction? Inmedieval times, without any economists or fancy economic models, even unelected kings and nawabs knew the wisdom of spending money on public works during famines and pandemics in order to create much-needed employment, pump some money into the system and create a multiplier effect while building a needed asset for the country. All prosperous nations today are bloating their balance sheets by liberal public spends and liquidity easing. What then are these analysts, who “criticise for criticism’s sake”, trying to imply: stop all public spending and deepen the economic drought further? If that is so,what other projects should be stopped:a few road and railway projects, some housing? Who will decide which one? Let the creaking wheels of whatever little is being built come to a halt and let the economic crises deepen. Is that what we are proposing?

They then say the money will be better spent on healthcare. True, but the problem of fighting the pandemic is not one of money, but of capacities --trained doctors, hospital beds, equipment, and these cannot be bought overnight by throwing money at the problem but built only over time. There is no doubt that these should be built with the utmost urgency, but where is the conflict with building infrastructure? If the mindset is to halt working of the government and stop all public works, driven by hostility to the present regime, then we better prepare for a moribund economy and general decay.

The old buildings were built in times when cars were a rare luxury, and the Metro was not even conceived. Today, commercial and government hubs have to be seamlessly connected with transportation. Going forward, the proposed Central Vista will connect with the Metro Yellow and Violet Lines, removing the need to bring in coaches and small cars of government officers and employees who come and park haplessly at the secretariat. We marvel at the transit-oriented development of airports and city centres and gush about it after overseas visits, but we come home and want to continue with archaic and dysfunctional urban layouts. A planed system in the long run cuts dependence on hydrocarbons burning in cars and has continued environmental benefits, more than a few trees which have to be cut. These in any case are replanted elsewhere under the compensatory afforestation scheme.

A careful analysis of the plans and layouts of the Central Vista shows wide footpaths, pedestrian underpasses, bridges over canals, benches, trees and more green areas with provisions for modern conveniences. The whole of Old Delhi and northeast Delhi, bereft historically of open spaces, gathers around in the evenings, with no facilities to speak of. It is a legitimate question to ask over the last seven decades -- in the name of trees, the environment and heritage, what prevented you from building basic facilities for the families who may wantto enjoy the open green spaces?

The commonest refrain of the chattering middle class in India is the lack of transparency and corruption. At times, very rightly so. Now, the Indian urban space story is replete with instances where foreign architects were nominated by Prime Ministers to develop cities, iconic buildings, bridges, etc, and this was most pronounced during Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. Chandigarh was built by Frenchman Le Corbusier. Odisha’s new capital Bhubaneswar by German town planner and architect Otto Konigsberger, who later went on to become director of housing in the Government of India. Durgapur, West Bengal’s steel town, was designed by two American architects, Joseph Allen Stein and Benjamin Polk. The famed Stein also built Delhi’s iconic India International Centre and India Habitat Centre. The list can go on and on, and it would be fair to say that the results have been very good when compared with the general unplanned urban chaos that otherwise defines India. But today’s India is one of scandals, division and loud debates, where to build anything worthwhile is an administrative nightmare and a political impossibility.

A study of the process followed to design and build the Central Vista Project shows the criteria for the competition were set by Council of Architecture, which included that no building would tower over India Gate. The project was bid for by half a dozen top design and architecture firms: Bimal Patel-led HCP Design Planning and Management won the bid. The fact that he is from Gujrat also became a point of constant discussion and rumour-mongering. Time will judge the work which Bimal Patel produces, but the naysayers have already denounced the baby as ugly even before it is born. So much for objectivity and keeping one’s prejudices at bay.

The project proponent or client took conceptual approval from the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC). Financial decisions were cleared by the Central Vigilance Commission. Monetary allocationswere provided by the finance ministry. Project assessment studies were done by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), and finally the sanction was given by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) to begin tendering and work. The legal challenge was heard by the Supreme Court.

With all this, if the argument is that all these bodies are compromised, we might as well write ourselves off as a country and embrace the argument that the bleeding hearts shouting in the TV studios and pouring their hearts out on WhatsApp are the only repositories of wisdom left to run the nation.

It is apparent that the criticism of the Central Vista project is not on facts, but on all kinds of arguments based on timing, nostalgia, morality, environment, birds, trees, aesthetics and whatever rant suits you best. In this one one-sided discourse, it was described by a commentator as a “heartless” building. Ironic as it may seem, this may suggest that all the buildings built by our colonial masters were pieces of great “compassion” towards a servile nation.

The writer is a retired IPS officer and a technology entrepreneur

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