On September 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the first phase of the revamped Central Vista avenue stretching from Vijay Chowk to India Gate to the public. He also unveiled the statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose statue at India Gate. Scheduled between 2020 and 2026, the Central Vista project is the first major reconstruction of the heart of the national capital since Independence. It will meet the requirements of the coming decades. The need to revamp and rebuild, augment the capacity of Parliament House, reimagine the office buildings to increase the efficiency of the Central Secretariat, allocate more space to the ministries and parliamentarians and make the place more accessible to the public was felt for a long time. But just like most other infrastructure projects in the country, this one, too, suffered from a lack of clarity and willpower.
It did not matter to the previous regime that the dilapidated buildings in the seat of the government imposed huge costs on the country about which much has been written about and argued over in the public domain. Parliament House was not designed to host the bicameral legislature of the world’s largest assembly. A new purpose-built Parliament was needed to accommodate the anticipated increase in the number of parliamentarians after 2026. Similarly, an integrated Central Secretariat, hosting 25,000-32,000 employees of various ministries, would greatly increase the efficiency of the central government in addition to reducing economic and environmental costs.
But as usual, even this critical project has come under vicious attack by an unimaginative opposition that thrives on pessimism. In a way, the criticism of the Central Vista is no different from the criticism of every other initiative of the Modi government — ungrounded in facts and incomprehensive gobbledygook. So, the Central Vista project is anti-democratic, anti-people, anti-environment, fascist and tyrannical. Then there is criticism that it is a vanity project, which will destroy India’s heritage to enrich construction companies. Even the best architects and experts worldwide would fail to comprehend such criticism of an infrastructure project. Such commentary ranks in the category of Twitter trolling and only showcases the damage social media has done to the public discourse across the world.
The fact is that the project increases the green cover and public space with better amenities and public transport. No trees will be cut down for the project; instead, there will be a net gain of 563 trees after all transplants/plantations are completed. Around 80,000 sqm of space in the North and South Blocks will be added as public space due to their conversion to national museums. Plus, around 2.25 hectares of public and semi-public land currently being used by the government shall be converted into green spaces.
Modern office buildings built with sustainability and functionality at their core will reduce the carbon footprint by curbing unnecessary travel between ministries located at random locations in the city and optimising space and energy consumption. And no listed heritage building in the Central Vista is being demolished. The project conserves heritage buildings by relieving excess stress on them due to roles for which they were not originally meant and refurbishing them. And public objections, public consultation, and hearings have been followed as per the statutory requirements. The project even withstood the scrutiny that came from several petitions in the High Court and Supreme Court. There can be legitimate disagreement with the design and aesthetics, as these are subjective. But the fake narrative about the lack of consultation and democratic legitimacy by certain quarters simply means that they are miffed about not being personally consulted.
So, what is the opposition to the project all about? The answer lies in the inability of the old guard to accept that India has moved forward and no longer accepts them as the gatekeepers and arbiters of what is acceptable. Just as 2014 marked the final departure from the old polity of the last 100 years, the Central Vista project marks the departure from the colonial roots of central Delhi. Renaming Rajpath as Kartavya Path is symbolic of this departure from the polity and architecture of the erstwhile imperial capital of the Raj. Installing the Bose statue during Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav is another step toward removing traces of the colonial mindset, which is part of the Panch Pran for New India during Amrit Kaal.
The reclamation of the people’s history of the freedom struggle from the propagandists of the old regime and taking back public space and architecture from the commissars is indeed an important outcome of the Central Vista project beyond the core objective of building a sustainable, efficient and democratic seat of government which is both modern and rooted at the same time.
The writer is National Vice-President, BJYM