At an early meeting with planners on the redevelopment of Central Vista last year, before the final selection was announced, Union Urban Development Minister Hardeep Puri was described by those present as being especially pleased about the highly confidential and discreet course of this “world class” project and how it had barely created a ripple in the public discourse. Indeed, the low-key announcement managed to completely bypass the loud media 'noise' that a project of this size should have generated.
It did so by avoiding any form of public participation. Typically, such iconic projects start with an open design competition, proceed with democratic involvement through public exhibitions and inviting citizen inputs over several months, and end with an independent jury of professional experts choosing the best design in a year-long process.
Eliminating these practices meant there were no knowledgeable inputs from historians, conservationists, traffic planners, landscapers and the people who live the Central Vista experience everyday – the citizens of Delhi.
Three weeks given to submit designs for India’s greatest redevelopment project since Independence. Six firms allowed to bid. One preselected by a non-public jury. Zero public debate.
The emphasis on secrecy, swiftness, and a restricted need-to-know inner circle gave the government the results it desired. From announcement to selection, the process took barely 45 days.
This period of subterfuge was hailed as a triumph of the Narendra Modi regime’s proactive, “efficient” model of governance. Sections of the Gujarati media now proudly describe it as the 'Gujarat Model'.
Puri’s enthusiastic endorsement made it clear that keeping it secret from the citizens was not an anomaly but a well-configured strategy.
Impunity and entitlement
At the core of this strategy is a deeply embedded elitism that acts with impunity to appropriate land in Delhi’s most precious areas without the public knowing what lies ahead.
Accompanying impunity is entitlement, that is, the belief that one inherently deserves special privileges. This further implies the automatic negation of the rights of 'others' – the public.
At a meeting in September 2015, the Delhi Development Authority approved the allotment of a priceless property on Akbar Road in Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, or LBZ, for a building called Garvi Gujarat, or 'Great' Gujarat. It had “ground coverage of 50 with an FAR of 150 subject to height restriction of 15 metres in D Zone”.
A senior official associated with the project said there was a “special request” from the state government to construct the building in such a way that it would give a feel of the state’s heritage and make it “a perfect blend of traditional architecture with modern amenities”. The National Buildings Construction Corporation, or NBCC, was the builder.
Accordingly, the palatial Garvi Gujarat has beautiful jharokhas and carvings made from white sandstone, transported from Gujarat, for its exteriors. But in a strict conservation zone of small, whitewashed bungalows set back in large leafy plots, it sticks out like a puzzling slice of Disneyland with its massive build right up to the fence and features that are blaringly insensitive to its neighbours.
Yet, it has 78 differently themed guest rooms, including two presidential suites and 17 VIP rooms. It also has several halls, four lounges, a gymnasium, and a yoga room. In trademark 'Gujarat Model' style, it is “grand”, has been erected “efficiently” in “record time”, and described as “world class”.
Its grand looks belie the muscular subversive power used to bring it into being. A look under the lid will reveal the familiar, cunning sleight of hand that quietly converted the land use of this incredibly precious public land – in full public view.
At the same September 2015 meeting, the Delhi Master Plan 2021 was specially amended to create an exceptional category of land use known as “State Bhawan or State Guest House”. Such a category did not exist earlier. It was also granted “enhanced development control norms” – which means it did not have to conform to the stringent building norms in a zone that has the strictest heritage and environmental laws to protect its historical and green open core value.
Around 7,000 square metres of the most powerful 25 square kilometres in the country was simply “given by the central government” to the state and 20,000 square metres built up overnight. Far from a single agency raising objections, they all facilitated the takeover.
Again, the question: why was it built at all? Why did the government generously help itself to the citizen’s land for a project that provides absolutely no benefit to the citizen?
A Gujarat Bhawan already exists. If needed, renovation and expansion could have been done on it’s own Chanakyapuri plot or a commercial plot elsewhere. It’s pertinent to ask why the government of Gujarat gets precedence over Delhi’s citizens and their Commons or over other states. Or if it is proper to allow a precedent that could unlock the floodgates.
Should every prime minister, for instance, get the right to build his own state’s multi-million rupee palace with regional architecture in the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone? This implies a Tamilian prime minister can build a second Thalaivar Tamil Bhawan with Tamil features. And after that could come a second Vadda Punjab Bhawan, a second Mahāna Bangla Bhawan, and so on.
If every state government has the same easy-to-manipulate access to its open space, the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, a precious heritage zone frozen by law that requires careful, precise management to preserve its green open core, could become Central Market, Lajpat Nagar, in two decades. If this is desired, why do strict building laws exist for the rest of Delhi’s citizens?
‘Efficiency’ and ‘speed’
A crucial insight into how this impunity functions with such ease can be gained from looking at key decision makers and other projects in other cities.
The Kashi-Vishwanath corridor in the prime minister’s Varanasi constituency has demolished temples, homes and mosques to create what it describes as a “clean path” from the Kashi-Vishwanath temple to the Ganga river. This has been subject to deep criticism. The prime minister’s favoured architect, Bimal Patel, who has also built the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and won the Central Vista project bid, rejects criticism from his fellow architects that the corridor shows the same contempt for the Commons of the citizen.
To a question about why centuries of built heritage – much of it undoubtedly coated with filth and encroachments – was bulldozed in a 'literal' clean sweep, destroying the character of the city, the architect’s response was sarcastic. “Here you had sewage flowing freely, you had encroachments on top of monuments – yes, all of this has ‘character’!”
However, a project involving lived heritage, however filthy, with homes, routes, intangible profession-based populations, shops requires the skills of a neurosurgeon. The architect needs to be delicately picking out the illegal additions, fixing the sewage issues and electricity wires, precisely excising modern encroachments, mapping a path with original materials – as happens in restored 'old cities' globally.
As an example, the Notre Dame restoration in Paris will take five-six years, the reconstruction of the Old Town in Frankfurt is ongoing for eight years, and even Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi took six years to restore with no lived-in heritage.
Instead, in Varanasi, the approach has mirrored an orthopaedic amputation. An entire swathe has been bulldozed to create a giant “maidan” where homes, galis, shops, temples once stood in the city’s historic jumble, characteristic of all old cities. Brand new structures will replace them.
A process that should have taken five-ten years or more of careful restoration will be finished in two years or likely “before time”, a Modi taqiya qalaam that sacrifices quality and due process every single time for destructive quick fixes that bear no connection to their environs. Since almost everything has been destroyed, nothing needs to be painstakingly restored or even resonate with what exists around it – a core element of conservation. This approach with its crude lack of complexity is typical of countries, like Dubai and China, which are indifferent to any reference to their past.
Patel says he has preserved temples but locals say scores more have been demolished along with 400 of their homes, many 300-500 years old in the centre of the city. Importantly, in an ancient holy city where mosques are intertwined with temples in winding galis, the 'character' that Patel dismisses, of the city’s long intermingled tradition, is under grave threat.
The greatest product of this tradition, Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan, the shehnai legend, called himself a worshipper of Allah and Saraswati, played at the Red Fort on the eve of Independence in 1947 and through his life at the Vishwanath Temple. But his old, mixed, complex heritage has no echo in the new, “clean” vision.
In Patel’s view, the tension between modernity and heritage is too great to give heritage the rigorous weightage that global protocols demand.
“We should be respectful of heritage and tradition but should not let ourselves be held hostage to them,” he says. “Research shows that Varanasi is an ancient city that has been continuously built over successive generations in many different ways. What’s important is to have the courage to do what needs to be done”
His stated approach to such projects indicates a mindset used to getting things 'done'. “Heritage regulations can be overwritten by Parliament if necessary to facilitate this,” he says.
Though international protocols dictate that all interventions in a heritage area must be preceded by a Heritage Impact Assessment Report, Patel claims “heritage impact assessments attempt to measure highly subjective ‘costs to heritage’ that a project is likely to cause. They neither assess the benefits of a project nor the cost to future generations of not undertaking a project. Therefore while relevant, they provide only limited information for making decisions.”
This approach that designates impact assessment to a voluntary ‘choice’ sits well with the prime minister’s ‘efficient’ and ‘man of action’ vision that elevates election timing and personal glory above community, tradition or lawful procedure.
Less advertised is that this deliberate and repeatedly projected “efficiency” depends solely and entirely upon the removal of ‘obstacles’ like due process, impact assessments, public consultation, and well-established global best practices, including UNESCO guidelines and protocols. Obliging officials can’t refuse.
The skillful playing on public memories of earlier institutional lethargy is a crafty tool to do away with the process altogether, thus throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
But by making so-called 'efficiency' or 'speed' the priority criteria, the Gujarat Model recklessly damages environment and heritage, cripples institutions, subverts democratic functioning and forfeits public good. When the costs are added up, the 'efficiency' is actually destructive.
Like Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati redevelopment. It projects a gushing riverfront but is actually a dying river whose groundwater recharge is being depleted by this 'projection” and needs to 'borrow' water daily from a dam. Or the hastily erected wall to hide Ahmedabad’s slums from Donald Trump’s privileged view that did absolutely nothing to change their conditions. Or the Central Vista project whose reckless completion speed will rain down traffic misery and pollution upon a city already terminally diseased by it, but sells the image that it is for the people’s good.
These are examples of a magician’s wiles. They forego the hard grind of impact assessments, plotted design, expert consultation, long years, and authentic materials that can enable lasting change done right. Instead, they embrace the short-term glitter of tinsel that merely covers up the damage below but never addresses the actual issue. It’s like putting a pretty bandaid on a tumour.
Disrespecting the citizen
The absolute refusal to defer to due process also comes from a deep-seated belief of ‘knowing’ better than those qualified or those whose very lives will be altered forever. Alongside the impunity and entitlement of these grand projects, there is an innate disrespect for the citizen at the heart of the Gujarat Model.
In the prime minister’s own words on the Kashi-Vishwanath project, “It seems God has chosen me for this sacred work on earth.” If so, there can be no place for ordinary mortals in this worldview, much less debate or divergence.
The biggest irony remains that a prime minister from the humblest of backgrounds should yearn for a house on Rajpath, no less, to endorse his vision of personal greatness and legacy. Would Emmanuel Macron demand and, more importantly, get a house on the Champs Elysées? Can even Trump order himself a second home on the Mall?
Ironically, the much-vilified 'Khan Market elite' has been outpaced to the level of no comparison by the Modi regime. An elitism based on divine sanction is a super elite because even UNESCO cannot do anything if God has ordained so. As for the citizens, they don’t matter in this scheme of things.
However, it has to be put out there: as a servant of the people, the prime minister’s covetousness for a residence on Rajpath inappropriately puts self above the people. It brings back embarrassing memories of his name-embroidered Rs 10-lakh suit, only this time the vanity will be at the taxpayer’s expense. By taking away the citizen’s space, these fancies of grandeur can be matched only by the obliviousness to the country’s actual super elite – its voter.
This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part.