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Opinion| Central Vista project Indian State's attempt to restablish connection with glorious civilizational past

·11 min read

"The change would strike the imagination of the people of India and would be accepted by all as the assertion of an unfaltering determination to maintain British rule in India." declared Lord Hardinge when he envisioned Delhi as the new capital of colonial India. Accordingly, Delhi was formally proclaimed as the new capital on 12 December, 1911, by King George V at a ceremony during Coronation Durbar.

Hardinge became the patron in chief of the proposed city of New Delhi and would play a role in selecting Edwin Lutyens and others as the persons in charge of the project for planning and building the new city of Delhi. Hardinge and his three engineers- CEV Goument, TRJ Ward, and WB Gordon- zeroed on the Raisina hill, a rocky hilltop adjoining the Ridge, as the site for establishing the offices of the British Colonial Government in India on 4 November, 1912. Little did they know then that their choice would become a reason for enormous debate, 109 years thence.

Central Vista redevelopment is an elaborately laid out ambitious plan of the Narendra Modi government to redevelop and modernize the Central Vista €" the three kilometre stretch of the central administrative area near Raisina Hill and Rajpath - including the Indian Parliament. It will serve twin objectives of heritage conservation and capacity expansion of the government's physical infrastructure for efficient, effective, and improved governance.

This plan also proposes constructing new office buildings to house all fifty-one ministries for greater synergy. The Central Vista project will not lead to the demolition of any of the heritage buildings of the colonial era- only later year haphazard/new developments are being pulled down to make way for the redevelopment.

Plans are also afoot to relocate the vice-president and prime minister's residences, with the Prime Minister's Office near the Secretariat. Another striking feature of this redevelopment plan is to convert the existing office building of North and South Blocks into public museums.

When completed, the existing green cover along the Central Vista will increase substantially with the proposed addition of more than 500 different trees to the current population. Additionally, 90 acres of prime land in central Delhi will become available for expanding public spaces following the vacation/demolition of former barracks/stables repurposed into office buildings.

The approximate cost of the project as per the environmental clearance application was Rs 13,450 crore. But the final cost of the project will only be known after completion of the process of tendering and competitive bidding of all the project parts. So far, the government has awarded contracts worth approximately Rs 1,339 crore for only two parts of the overall project, namely construction of the new Parliament building and revamping Rajpath.

The "Original" New Home of The Indian Republic in New India

I often wonder about the Indian State's disjointed relationship with its glorious civilizational past and its contribution to the overall growth and development of the Indian Republic. As the modern Indian State enters the 75th year of its independence, this increasingly relevant question deserves greater scrutiny.

The architects of modern India used anecdotal evidence provided by the circumstances leading to and the immediate aftermath of the Indian independence to build a piecemeal edifice of the Indian State without upsetting the applecart. Relics of the Raj coalesced into the foundation stone of the modern Indian State.

The government of the Indian State moved inside the physical infrastructure vacated by the Britishers. It appropriated the working place and style of the colonial government. But, the Indian quest for establishing a connection with its civilization roots remained unfulfilled. The benefit of hindsight is reasonable to conclude that the status-quo approach to the Indian nation-building process was colossally inadequate for the needs of the Indian Republic.

In this day and age where even private homes undergo renovation regularly, the Indian State continues to operate out of 90-year-old repurposed colonial homes retained after independence.

Compared to India, the architects of the modern American state took a conscious decision to build it from scratch. Hence, writing the American Constitution was as crucial as building democratic institutions and physical infrastructure to represent the Federal government.

Thomas Jefferson was responsible for constructing a new capital in Washington to facilitate its move from Philadelphia. An architect himself, Jefferson planned for the upcoming physical infrastructure to help educate Americans at home and lift its reputation abroad while catering to the needs of the new republic.

He conceptualised the Capitol building, the seat of the Federal government of the United States. President John Adams inaugurated this building on 17 November, 1800. Since then, the Capitol building has been renovated and expanded several times to meet the growing demands of the American state, thus justifying as accurate every word of Jefferson's quote: "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favourite amusements" .

The Central Vista project, I believe, is the Indian State's confident and unapologetic attempt to seek redemption and re-establish its connection with the glorious civilizational past. The precincts of architectural, historical, and cultural value to the Indian civilization will be added to the redeveloped area to help reinvigorate that missing link.

No wonder the status-quoist block is rattled at the prospect of Central Vista becoming the new "original" home of the Indian Republic in New India!

Improved and modern governance through architecture

Architecture is a unique form of art, touching humanity across layers of existence, everywhere and every day. Encompassing the four major fields of human endeavour, namely science, art, humanities, and technology, the architect draws on their positives and uses them for the larger human good.

"Architecture is the starting point for anyone who wants to take humanity towards a better future"- Le Corbusier.

The Modi government has consciously planned to leverage opportunities offered by architecture to redevelop the Central Vista, using modern construction technology, so as to bridge the existing gap between demand and availability of government infrastructure and force an overall improvement in governance through efficient government functioning.

When India gained independence, the newly-formed government of the Indian State appropriated colonial structures and repurposed them for use by its machinery. The land and free space paucity along the Central Vista forced the conversion of British-era barracks and stables into office structures.

As the size of the government expanded, new development helped accommodate the growing babudom and meet its emergent needs. These non-heritage buildings, developed over the past several decades, were initially planned for a lesser number than they currently accommodate. As a result, the infrastructure, physical space, heating, air conditioning, fire safety, parking facilities, lifts, and basic amenities like hygienic toilets in these buildings fell woefully short of the demand. Last but not least, these buildings stand in active seismic zones and are prone to damage during high-intensity earthquakes.

Central Vista redevelopment, by addressing all the problems, will help usher in an era of improved and modern governance through architecture!

Parliament for New India

The new parliament, the first building to be completed under the project, will be inaugurated in time to host the Winter Session of Parliament in 2022 to mark the 75 years of India's independence. The triangular-shaped parliament building, built at Rs 862 crore, will have a built-up area of 67,200 square meters on a 10.5 acres plot inside the parliament complex adjacent to the current building.

When completed, the new parliament building will have separate sections for Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, accommodating 888 LS MPs and 384 RS MPs. Also, the new parliament will not have a separate central hall, and Lok Sabha will be used for the joint session by adjusting an extra MP on twin seats.

The new building of the Indian Parliament will be earthquake-resistant. It will use the most modern technology for acoustics, voting, and eco-friendly and energy-efficient construction. In addition, liberal use of technology will ensure higher internet bandwidth, improved and enhanced security, and parking. It will also have a central lounge, constitution hall, dining space, and offices of ministries and committees inside four floors structure. The new parliament building, planned for the next 150 years, will use designs, ensembles, and symbols to depict India's rich diversity and ancient heritage.

In the Legislative Enclave, housing the present and upcoming new building, Chambers for Members of Parliament will be built on the plot currently having Transport and Shram Shakti Bhavan by March 2024. It will help MPs meet their constituents and officials while assisting them in discharging their official duties.

The redevelopment of the Legislative Enclave and the new parliamentary building has been necessitated by the impending addition of parliamentary seats following the delimitation exercise proposed in 2026. The size and old age of the present parliament did not leave any scope for further expansion to deal with severe space crunch or improvement in the crumbling physical infrastructure and amenities. That is why the then Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar had set up a high-powered committee in 2012 to suggest a new home for Parliament. The new parliament building will eliminate all the limitations of the old building.

Development in state capitals vs Delhi

Several states across India have embarked on the planned development of government infrastructure to meet their growing demands. Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar, Gandhinagar in Gujarat, Dispur in Assam, and Naya Raipur in Chhattisgarh are few shining examples of such planned development.

Compared to the mentioned states, the planned infrastructure of the Union government in New Delhi dates back to colonial times. The growing demands of the government during the post-1947 phase were mostly met piecemeal via haphazard development.

Need for convention hall

Even after 74 years of independence, the Indian capital lacks a good quality dedicated meeting, convention, and banquet hall. Consequently, Hyderabad House, designed by Edwin Lutyens as the residence of the Nizam of Hyderabad, is used by the Government of India for meeting with visiting heads of states, press conferences, and state banquets. It is bizarre that successive governments ignored this fundamental aspect for so long. Thanks to the Central Vista project, the Government of India will finally get a modern and dedicated facility for meetings, state banquets, and press conferences with visiting heads of states.

Security and ease of traffic

Another notable and least talked about aspect of the Central Vista project is the use of technology for ensuring the safety and security of the proposed office complex from every kind of threat. Also, the concentration of offices and residences in one common location will help guard these facilities better.

Relocating prime minister's residence next to the Secretariat will do away with the frequent traffic restrictions necessitated by the security needs of the prime minister. Additionally, integrated underground parking facilities and underground transit passages directly linked to the Delhi Metro's yellow and violet lines will help seamless traffic movement.

Heritage conservation and development of museum infrastructure

India is a country of rich cultural heritage/history, and National Museum is home to several thousand artefacts, sculptures, and works of art representing it. However, the current space in the National Museum building is inadequate for fully displaying its entire collection, thus depriving India of an opportunity to showcase its rich cultural and historical heritage.

Countries worldwide leverage their national heritage via a network of museums and use them to educate both domestic and foreign audiences. Louvre Museum in Paris and Capitol Visitor Centre in Washington are the two most refined examples of any museum infrastructure amongst several others globally.

Central Vista project aims to significantly strengthen and boost Indian museum infrastructure and bring it on par with global standards by incorporating the latest technological features and ideas in the running of museums.

The North Block and South Block buildings will be refurbished and retrofitted to convert those two buildings into a public museum. Post completion, the National Museum will move inside 3.5 times bigger North Block and South Block buildings. Having the National Museum close to the seat of the government will help improve the security of the enormous wealth of our heritage and assist India to realize its museum potential.

Buildings controlled by the Gandhi family

The heads of the governments of the world's major democracies are provided with an official residence after they assume office. However, in India, three such houses, namely Teen Murti Bhawan (official residence of JL Nehru- currently with Nehru Memorial), 1 Safdarjung Road (official residence of Indira Gandhi- currently with Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum), and 10 Janpath (official residence of Rajiv Gandhi- currently with Sonia Gandhi)- were usurped by Gandhi family/successors. Avoiding such occurrence in the future is possible only by designing and constructing a fixed institutional place of residence for the Indian prime minister.

Besides these three houses, Gandhi family-run trusts and foundations occupy offices inside government facilities against every norm of decency and complete disregard of the law of the land. The reallocation following the redevelopment of Central Vista will help get rid of such illegal occupations and avoid them in the future.

Ever since ordinary Indians powered Narendra Modi, seen as an outsider, to the highest political seat of the country, the Indian political landscape, and the resulting political discourse has been mired by sharp polarisation. So closely intertwined are the interests of the Modi-hating coterie of politicians, journalists, Lutyens elite, self-proclaimed liberals, activists; that their most profound natural impulse is the rejection of everything prime minister Modi proposes or does: Central Vista is no different!

The redevelopment of Central Vista may be a necessity not wanted by the entitled elite revelling in the remnants of the Raj; toiling hard to reclaim her glory through passion, persistence, and perseverance, the new aspirational India most certainly needs it.

Central Vista is an idea whose time has come!

The author is a Chartered Accountant with interests in social entrepreneurship, culture, dharmic issues and agriculture. He has served as an Economic Advisor to Trivendra Singh Rawat, former chief minister of Uttarakhand. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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