While much has been written about the Central Vista Redevelopment Plan, most of it misses the forest for the trees. Here is my take on this controversial plan.
First, there is not enough focus on public spaces. The fact that the India Gate hexagon and its surrounding lands were flooded with more than 3.5 lakh revellers on the New Year’s eve of 2020, and with many more during the protests following the rape and murder in Delhi in 2012, speaks volumes of the void which this space fills in the city. So, how should this demand for public spaces be met?
Edwin Lutyens and his team imagined the Rajpath Vista as a “Processional way” — the imperial seat of power sat 40 feet above the Vista and contained the then Viceregal Lodge (the present Rashtrapati Bhawan), and Raisina Hill’s North and South Blocks, containing intimidating government offices meant to express the imperial power of the British Empire. While this statement of imperial power manifested itself on the western side of the Vista Avenue, the eastern side was dominated by the India Gate, and had a cluster of palaces which were to be built by the then maharajas and kings of the dominion of India. While many built nice looking palaces, some built nothing at all. Sadly, the new redevelopment plan neglects the eastern side even though it envisages that Raisina Hill be converted into many museums.
The move to convert the hill into public buildings is noble, perhaps akin to how the palaces of The Louvre in Paris were transformed into a Museum of Art. While such a movement from an imperial to a democratic building usage is commendable, the new plan is silent about what the eastern side would now look like.
Let’s start with the Second World War army barracks which occupy 30 acres in what is called the Princes Park, the Jodhpur House and the Jamnagar House. There are also barracks which presently house the Coast Guard headquarters, and the territorial army — another 23 acres right next to the national stadium. All of these are lands located on the eastern end of the Vista. While it is logical that the three princely houses plots should be used to build public and semi-public facilities, there is no reason why the Coast Guard or the territorial army lands should not be converted into open landscaped-greens for the common public. Both these quasi-military functions can be and should be removed to designated defence lands in the cantonment.
The Indian Army has already started construction of a building for its headquarters in the Delhi Cantonment. It seems logical for the army to vacate all that it occupies on the western side of the Vista, and to make way for better use of these lands. The western side contains the present Sena Bhawan and about 40 acres of another set of single-storied barracks off Dalhousie Road and near Rajaji Road. All these land parcels should be brought to use for developing public spaces. We still don’t have a National Library, a National Gem and Jewellery Museum, a Museum of Indian Arts and Crafts — these are public buildings which have been topics of discussion since perhaps 50 years. Why not use this opportunity to complete these pending works?
Which brings us to the illogical use of some of the princes’ palaces which were built about 100 years ago — the Baroda House and the Patiala House. The Baroda House contains the head offices of the Northern Railways. This should logically be in the centre of the Northern Railway territory at Ambala where there is enough land. The buildings built in the Baroda House in the early 1950s need to be demolished, and the eight acres palace should be restored to its original glory. Similarly, Patiala House needs to be restored to its original intent. It is presently used as a mere district court, even though its replacement building has been built at a cost of about Rs 500 crore, and has still not been inaugurated.
Thirty per cent of Bikaner House, also on the hexagon, is occupied by barracks. Does it still need to be under the control of the Rajasthan state government? And, do buses need to start from here on their way to Jaipur? Jodhpur House is situated on an eight-acre land parcel that is being used only for visiting military personnel. It also sits on the hexagon, on a plot designated as PSP in the Master Plan since 1962. Why can these barracks not be demolished, and the land be used for a real public function like a museum, right next to the National Gallery of Modern Art? Or a National Museum of Indian Music? There are many other similar aberrations of illogical land use in and around the Vista and its radial roads.
All the above issues should concern the central government while redeveloping the Central Vista. It does seem that the plan, as per details available in the public domain, has been created without a study of how the original intent of the Vista needs to be respected, how the illogical land use issues need to be addressed and the errors of the past reversed, how the barracks built by the British need to be demolished, and how the Vista should be given back to the public and not be consumed by government employees stepping out onto it only for their lunch breaks.
The main Vista Avenue needs to be formally democratised. It needs a landscape redevelopment plan — not just a horticultural quick-fix. Should we not be moving away from an imperial design mindset to a democratic approach which ensures that public spaces are meant for the people and not for the government?
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 12, 2020 under the title ‘Public spaces for the people’. The writer is an architect and urbanist based in New Delhi.
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