“This will be the finest ruin of them all.”
That was Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister, in 1920. Weary from the War and the long drawn-out peace settlement, he was on a visit to India to shoot tigers, and was shown the Indian Viceroy’s House and the secretariats, on which construction had been resumed after a gap of many years. A century later, plans are afoot to fulfill his prophecy.
Twenty first-century India will be written about as “The Age of Replacement”. First road-names, then institutions, then actual buildings. The Hall of Nations was the beginning.
The present proposal follows the reinvention of the Mughals’ Chandni Chowk. But compare the two situations. Chandni Chowk is three-and-a-half centuries old. Its width has narrowed, the central canal has been buried, trees cut, and pedestrians and animal-powered transport have been edged out by motorised vehicles. The plan now being carried through means that pedestrians will be able to walk with confidence and sense of security. If the plans for Rajpath come to pass, the pedestrians will lose their space. Ice-cream at India Gate? More likely security guards and concertina wire. Boating in the water-channels? Try Purana Qila instead. Jamun trees with purple carpets — oh wait, they say they won’t cut the trees. Or will they do what the Ministry of Environment and Forests did in Jor Bagh, where full-grown trees were axed by night?
The micro-climate that Lutyens created for an arid area, with stretches of water, sculpted fountains and carefully-chosen evergreen jamuns, will be a thing of the past as much as the trees and the canal in Chandni Chowk. That was done by a jittery colonial regime after an attempt to assassinate Viceroy Hardinge in Chandni Chowk, this is planned by a regime comfortably in power.
The British were moving their officials (the need for a parliament did not come up till 1919) to a peaceful island, cocooned against organised protests by lawn and forest (equally in Shimla in summer and New Delhi in winter). Independent India gradually moved back to that aloofness, by shifting demonstrations away from the Boat Club, and by making the beautiful open spaces of the Secretariat buildings out of bounds. The Secretariat complex is a striking skyline, but sauntering is discouraged. The people’s space is the long stretch of green below, the water-channels, and India Gate.
Not only the Secretariat complex but the people’s space is now under threat. The decision is to build anew by destroying what there is: “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.” I wonder how new buildings will ensure virtues which should have been inculcated in the young civil servants at Mussoorie. “Efficiency, accountability and equity” are obviously attained more effectively by building gigantic convention centres and offices (and statues) than by providing ration-cards for the poor, and working to end the unremitting deaths of children from malnutrition (after all, they are not yet voters, not yet the “New India” with “values and aspirations”).
Someone has obviously gone back to the brief given in 1912. The Ministry’s statement says: “We are looking at firms, national or international, based in India so that they understand architectural styles prevalent in India”. The ghost of Lutyens will smile, recalling 1912, when the Viceroy sent him on a tour to understand the styles of architecture which had been prevalent in India! “Had been”, because there were no individual Indian architects then. That explained Baker’s chhatris and Lutyens’ Sanchi-like dome. Taken together with that anxious reference to “Indian Culture” (I cannot get my head round the reference to the “social milieu”), I expect we are looking for a Indo-Saracenic-Modernist-Brutalist-Burj Dubai concoction.
This kind of once-in-a-century project should be discussed at the national level, not by tendering. We were caught napping when the cactus-forest of New Kidwai Nagar sprouted, and Pragati Maidan died. Now we are about to see a New Sachivalaya. Could Dilliwalas please wake up and be alert to what is happening to their city?
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 19, 2019 under the title ‘The Age Of Replacement’. The writer is a historian of Delhi.