Delhi’s Central Vista: Why historians are against redeveloping it
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Delhi’s Central Vista: Why historians are against redeveloping it

They say the capital will lose a valuable part of its heritage.

By Shaunak Ghosh and Proma Chakraborty

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Exactly 108 years ago, on December 12, 1911, at the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India, he declared, “We have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi”.

The subsequent shifting of the seat of power of the British Raj in India was no mean feat. They had to shift all their offices and residential plots back, and form a new centre of power. So, in 1912, a town planning committee which included Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker was set up to choose an appropriate site for the capital and also to design a new one. 

In the next 20 years, the new seat of power of the British Empire was made on the designs of Lutyens and Baker, and the Central Vista consisting of India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhawan, North and South Blocks, the princes’ houses and the Parliament house was set up.

In due course, after India achieved independence, several buildings such as Rail Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan were set up as offices for the functioning of the newly formed Indian government. Thus, with the old houses which represents the colonial era along with the different government buildings built in Nehruvian times, we have the Central Vista, or the Lutyens Zone — an integral part of the history of New Delhi

On September 2, the Central Public Works Department under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, released a tender which suggested that these heritage buildings will not stand forever. They tender stated that the common Central Secretariat and Central Vista would undergo “redevelopment…to support Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a new India”.

As part of the plan, Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri said that while heritage structures like the Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhawan would undergo minor alterations, the Bhawans “which are in an extremely shoddy state” would be done away with. On October 25, he said the work on the ground will start by May 2020 and is expected to finish by 2024.

The redevelopment is expected to finish by 2024.

The Centre’s decision has drawn mixed reactions, with many claiming that it would negate the heritage value of the area.

In this light, historian and co-convenor of INTACH Swapna Liddle drew our attention to the fact that the Central Vista itself is protected by law. The Delhi building bye-laws have a heritage clause which states the protection of not only buildings but precincts. On the basis of the bye-laws, there were three gazette notifications (in 2009, 2010 and 2016) which notified various buildings and precincts. Here, the Central Vista is listed as a precinct. 

“The fact that these legal protections exist gives us some sort of a place to start the debate,” says Liddle.

Ponting to the lack of environmental sustainability of the plan, veteran environmentalist and founder of Green Circle, V Selvarajan, says the project is a futile and unwanted exercise. “All redevelopment projects lack proper Environmental Impact Assessment. In South Delhi, unmindful felling of trees have affected tree cover,” he says. Similarly, he thinks that a scientific EIA will not be done here. 

Selvrajan says that even today, the traffic and environmental upkeep of the Central Vista is far better than any other part of the city. So, the rebuilding will have severe repercussions on this area.

On October 18, the CPWD awarded the reins of the project to a Gujarat-based company HCP Designs, the same company in charge of the revamped Kashi Vishwanath corridor in Varanasi and the new BJP headquarters. 

The company also submitted an official video where in their initial blueprint of the new Central Vista was described. “We do not know enough details to really know what the design project. What has been shared is very vague,” says Liddle.

When Patriot contacted HCP Designs, they said they would only be able to share further details on the project with client permission. 

Post-Independence architecture 

Puri had clearly stated that the Bhawans, which house the different central government departments, will be done away with. With a chance of these buildings being demolished, let’s look back at the history of these offices.

The need for the construction of Bhawans and new institutional buildings rose in the post-Independence era since the functioning of the colonial state governance was very limited. The post-Independence state took upon itself many more activities and the construction of Udyog and Krishi Bhawans was a response to these increasing scopes of the state.

In the book Architectural Guide Delhi, Anupam Bansal details what led to architectural style of the Bhawans as we see them today. He writes, “The challenge was a vocabulary that would be sufficiently and indigenous and yet also dovetail with the built form of New Delhi’s British buildings. Thus, the Supreme Court (1952), Krishi Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan (both 1957) and the Rail Bhawan (1962) while serving very different purposes, were marked by certain strong similarities. The imperial style of Luytens and Baker was considered worth emulation and repeating even after three decades of the making of New Delhi…These architects borrowed more elements from Mughal and Hindu architecture than from the colonial era and fused them with modern building vocabulary. In EB Doctor’s Ashok Hotel and Vigyan Bhawan (1962), revivalist styles were seen at full power.” 

Bikaner House.

Liddle points out that from the architectural point of view there was little bit of the hangover of the Lutyens style, hence one can see chattris in Krishi Bhawan. 

“There was a kind of consciousness that if you are building in the Central Vista, you should respect the general look of it. Even the princely houses that came up in the 20s and 30s — for instance, a Bikaner House could not be a Bikaneri house in Delhi. The architects of the Bhawans also had the same in mind that it should generally be in keeping with that,” she adds.

However, at the same time, the post-Independence state was also cash-strapped. Hence the style of these are very modest. 

Explaining that building modern structure in a space like Central Vista is not an issue, she says, “A building in the 21st century should look like one but it should also respect its surroundings.” In this regard, she points to the new wing of National Gallery of Modern Art, which despite being modern is in tune with the look of the Central Vista itself.

While many are of the opinion that the redevelopment plan of Central Vista is an attempt to remove colonial history, Liddle believes that colonial history is a part of our past and by acknowledging that past it does not mean we are celebrating that past. 

“The Central Vista itself, shortly after Independence, was completely re-inscribed within the popular imagination as a seat of, not a colonial government but of an independent government. We in our own way have re-imagined that space as an independent state.” 

Not just a building

“Back in the time, getting a job at the Railways was a very prestigious thing”, says Rajiv (name changed), an employee who has been working in Rail Bhawan for the past 30 years. “You know, whenever we used to come to visit the area in my teen years, I would always look in awe at the structures, with a wish that someday I will be able to be a part of the most important area of the country.

Rajiv’s dream was fulfilled in 1990, when after two attempts he got a job in the Indian Railways right in the headquarters in Delhi, the Rail Bhawan.

Hyderabad House.

He still remembers the day when he first came to office. “I had an impression that I would be greeted by grumpy seniors who would treat me as a nobody, and I would have a tough time,” he says. But the office, he adds, was quite different, as his seniors welcomed him very dearly, and he gelled within his office.

“For the past so many years, I have made friends, and had many moments to remember right inside the quarters of my office,” he says. In the canteen — which, according to Rajiv, serves “the best food at the cheapest price” — he says  he has had several debates with his colleagues on various topics, from cinema to politics. “Back when I joined, a plate of rajma chawal was available for just one rupee, and now we get it for Rs 15, which is still quite cheap.”

“This place has even given me my life partner,” says Rajiv. He first met his wife, who also is an employee with the railways, in the canteen. “I even proposed to her 26 years ago, in this very building.” So for him, Rail Bhawan is as much a personal space as it is a professional one.

On being informed that the government is planning to take down the building as part of the redevelopment of the Central Vista, Rajiv is taken aback. “This is a building where I have spent more than half of my life. This is not just a building but a part of my life, and to know that a few years from now it won’t exist comes as nothing less as a shock to me,” he says.

After a moment of silence, Rajiv continues: “But there is an underground metro station right underneath the Rail Bhavan, hence I’m sure that the government won’t risk demolishing this property.” His voice has a sense of false hope.

This article was first published in Patriot.

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