Government first, citizen last: Delhi Central Vista plan turns democracy on its head
Opinion

Government first, citizen last: Delhi Central Vista plan turns democracy on its head

India could learn from how Britain plans to refurbish its Parliament and decentralise its government.

By Alpana Kishore

Published on :

Like India, the United Kingdom is doing a massive refurbishment of its 150-year-old Parliament. Planning has begun and work starts in 2025. It will take six years and cost £3-5 billion.

According to the Economist, Britain’s Parliament is “riddled with asbestos...broken windows...its spaghetti-like wiring a fire hazard”. Rebuilt in 1870 after a fire destroyed the older structure that had stood for 800 years, its meticulous upgrade will include drainage, electrical systems, heating, security, and ventilation. Both Houses of Parliament will shift to a specially outfitted temporary location.

Seizing this opportunity, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to move the House of Lords (which is like our Rajya Sabha) to York or Birmingham, to create a new centre of power in Britain’s neglected, old industrial north that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, so that “people get a chance to feel democracy in action first hand”.

The northern location will be determined by due process: a constitutional review, an architectural competition to keep the new buildings like local ones of similar purpose or scale, and “several days of debates” in the House of Commons (which is like our Lok Sabha). The whole process will take 12 years.

There’s more. Just like India, the UK too is undertaking a massive overhaul of its central administrative blocks.

Twenty nationwide cross-department “hubs” created to cut down on building costs will move civil servants outside Whitehall (our North and South Blocks) to modernise “antiquated working patterns”. Partnering with private developers, the government wants these hubs to regenerate local economies. Revenue and Customs has already moved (from 170 offices to 13 hubs) and the department of food and rural development, and others are following. Minister Simon Hart said the state-of-the-art facilities would “save taxpayers money by replacing outdated office blocks”. The hubs will bring footfall, jobs and investment to regional centres and be the most “digitally advanced” buildings.

The lighter footprint devolved to slash costs will “reduce the buildings from which the central government operates” from 800 to 200, saving £2.5 billion over 20 years, and transform UK’s bureaucracy into an agile, modern institution with equitable spread and smart connectivity.

The key takeaways?

  • “Refocusing attention” away from London. Simply put, decentralisation.

  • Emphasizing continuity in the usage of the historical Parliament building with full attention to heritage and restoration with a thoughtful plan over 12 years.

  • Drastically slashing the government’s footprint, and freeing up land or space occupied by the government for citizens, leisure and culture.

  • An equitable, geographical spread of power.

  • Recognising the changed digital world of today that prioritises compact and nimble over bulk and hulk.

  • Putting people first.

The massive changes bludgeoning Delhi speak of the complete opposite. The key takeaways?

  • Extreme centralisation that recalls the decentralised offices (half, according to the chosen architect Bimal Patel), which have gone away.

  • Devaluation of heritage and continuity of independent India’s parliamentary history by speed-building new Parliament.

  • Expansion of the government’s footprint by depriving the citizen of his. The land use of 100 acres has changed overnight from public/semi-public to ‘Government Office’, adding three crore square feet in new blocks.

  • Reinforcement of an inequitable concentration of power in a federal system like India, disregarding global trends.

  • Bypassing 2020’s digital world to reinstate 1970s, Soviet-style government blocks that overwhelm the iconic “Nation Space”.

  • Putting people last.

It’s shockingly unsurprising to see how the government has undermined its own policy.

As early as 1985, the National Capital Region Planning Board Act stated that no additional government building should be constructed in Delhi. In 2016, there was a push for a special zonal plan for the area because rational people understood an essential truth.

Delhi is choking. Other cities desperately need reimagination to become regional magnets for local populations to stay there instead of heading to Delhi. A bloated government needs to move out. Secondly, the future is digital. Worldwide, offices are leaner, wired, and untethered to location. Thirdly, security wise, a tiny sliver of land overloaded with all the country’s decisionmaking command centres should not become a juicy enemy target.

Today, that government policy is a worthless piece of paper no one will talk about, least of all the Urban Development Ministry it was crafted under.

Instead, the overwhelming emphasis of the Gujarat model plan by architect Bimal Patel is that proximity equals efficiency. Therefore, it exhorts consolidation as key, to the extent that the Prime Minister’s house must also be part of this centralisation tsunami. To do this, the old “hutments” or barrack type single-level office structures around Raisina Hill will be removed. So will, it’s shockingly likely, other historic buildings and spaces like Baroda House and Jaipur House. Large, fairly bare spaces will face the full brunt of high-density office blocks.

The Patel presentations speak of Delhi having the lowest density in the centre and institutions like Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts having 24 acres in a manner that suggests their land use is “inefficient”. They press the point that their openness is a comfortably sacrificed element that can easily withstand higher densities, traffic and built up space, and indeed for “efficiency’s” sake, should.

In fact, the entire thrust of the Patel plan sees the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone and the Central Vista as a sum of all its parts rather than as a whole. It also doesn’t see the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone as the heart and lung of the city it actually is.

Accordingly, the plan has taken care to safeguard the gardens lining the Central Vista, Delhi’s version of New York’s Central Park. Therefore, it believes, rejigging or rebuilding other parts won’t matter as long as this key box is ticked to soothe public ire.

Yet, to think this is to miss the entire point.

Why exactly does it matter if 24 acres of an arts centre are taken away and it is shifted to a smaller plot? Why does it matter if parking areas are sacrificed to build “efficient” office blocks or ramshackle “hutments” are demolished for the same?

It matters because the whole of Lutyens’ Delhi is Delhi’s Central Park – not just the few, narrow kilometres that is the Central Vista. It is a composite, a holistic space, a Nation Space in its entirety.

It is where Delhi can slow down its cars, cycles and legs to revel in the lavish space that its low-density roads and population offer. It is where Dilliwallahs can breathe a lower pollution microclimate, something they can never have in the toxic air of their own homes (a crisis an indifferent government refuses to prioritise). It is where the eye sees the blinding greenery of trees that spill over the low walls of the ministers’ bungalows, where people enjoy the sun in the roundabouts and where the low quality “hutment” offices offer the priceless gift of low traffic, low security and high access to all. Yet, Lutyens’ Delhi is barely two percent of the city’s area – other parts are nothing like it. This figure, then, emphasises its incalculable worth for every citizen, especially those who can never enjoy these boons even a mile away.

This two percent green open core will now host the 3X space Patel’s plan adds, thousands more cars and people daily, the massive pollution of construction, a giant carbon footprint equal to the size of Chennai, the return of 50 percent of offices that had left Lutyens’, the VVIP zone inaccessibility of the new PMO, the loss of parking spaces, the loss of a microclimate and slow traffic, the shrinking of an arts centre, its melas, festivals and spacious performance/culture areas, the loss of the National Museum, the loss of Bikaner House, Jaipur House, Baroda House, Jamnagar House and other stunning heritage buildings that define us.

In exchange for the loss/downgrade of this low density, low traffic, low pollution, accessible 26 sq km heart and lung, the citizen will get “75 acres” divided into three areas.

This includes an Arboretum with exotic species in glasshouses on the President’s Estate. Low value trees will be removed to create this highly water-intensive space in a city whose water table is in terminal stages. A garden near the river and two museums – North and South Block – are the others.

This is the unequal barter that emerges between the powerful and the powerless. It boxes citizens into a new paradigm of democracy where a single arbiter or Dear Leader gets to decide Delhi’s fate for generations, while its own millions don’t get five minutes to voice their thoughts. The new Nation Space that emerges firmly ordains the government as the epicentre of the country, not its people.

Imagine the reverse.

Imagine beautiful Jamnagar House and Baroda House transformed like Bikaner House, into cultural and leisure assets. Imagine a Parliament extension built underground with an IM Pei like chamber flooded with light as surrounding trees and open spaces retain the majesty of the original. Imagine a transformation of the mediocre Krishi Bhawan and Shastri Bhawan that would reduce their footprint by half and place a garden, a forest, a theatre or dance space instead. Imagine a plan for Delhi’s next 100 years that creates “world class” garbage disposal, sewage dispersion and municipal services.

That’s what a real democracy looks like. One where the citizen comes first.

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