Central Vista: The ignominy of building India’s parliament by breaking the law

Welcome to the elitist era of Indian democracy where the public is rendered irrelevant.

ByAlpana Kishore
Central Vista: The ignominy of building India’s parliament by breaking the law
Shambhavi Thakur
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Despite the matter pending in the highest court in the land, proceedings moved like a synchronised orchestra. Last week, after scolding the government for “aggressively pushing ahead”, the Supreme Court allowed the foundation stone for a new Parliament to be laid on a site fully prepped for it – its 400 mature trees uprooted, its earth hollowed out by machines.

The determination to push through the Central Vista project with implacable disregard for professional and civic anguish might have produced a chest-thumping moment for the Modi government but the public faces the ignominy of knowing that India’s new Parliament, its core democratic symbol and premier lawmaking body, will have been built on a scaffolding of trampled laws that were, ironically, of its own making.

Lacking a white paper or even clear project details that are still shrouded in secrecy, professional architects and planners have been forced to glean information from whatever they can. The hidden story unfolding in the official applications, quiet submissions, sanctioning authorities, agencies and courts, they say, is one of gross improprieties that offer a grim foreboding of the government not only endorsing but actually authoring the deliberate shredding of the law.

Ten colossal office blocks of Bimal Patel’s Central Vista project called the Common Secretariat (as opposed to the historic Central Secretariat) will be constructed in what’s looking like a spree of code and by-law violations.

Here are some of the laws/norms that have been or will be aggressively flouted in a series of lethal blows to the Delhi Master Plan.

1) Gratuitous FAR excess: Plan exceeds maximum permissible limits by 50 percent in the most protected zone of the country

Demolition drives in the national capital have seen homes, shops and buildings of residents razed to the ground by bulldozers for exceeding FAR by a fraction of this. There’s no question of even 10 percent extra FAR being sanctioned. Clearly, the government believes the law is meant only for citizens, not for itself.

FAR is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the plot it is built on. All the plots earmarked for the Central Vista project have a maximum permissible FAR of 2. “The figures submitted indicate gratuitously excessive construction beyond this which can be computed to be more than three lakh square metres of office space above permissible limits,” says Prof Kavas Kapadia, former Dean of the School of Planning and Architecture.

For comparison, this would be like building the entire Kolkata airport terminal (2,50, 000 sq metres) and more in addition to the maximum construction allowed. In total, 15,000,00 sq metres or more will be built.

To accomplish this massive construction, an enormous amount of effort, destruction, and manipulation of legal requirements has had/will have to take place, compromising institutions and due process quite publicly.

  • Hundred acres had to be taken away from the public for whose use they have been expressly earmarked in the Master Plan since the 1960s, when two-thirds of Rajpath and the whole C-Hexagon was kept for sociocultural use – theatres, galleries, etc. Lutyens had himself conceived of this area as a cultural/intellectual hub. These 100 acres were marked for ‘Government Use’ by a dubious process.

  • An elaborate official exercise had to be conducted to ensure that the public’s legal rights were rendered meaningless by curtailing their hearings and changing land use of six of these plots two days before the coronavirus lockdown in March. The legality of this change is awaiting judgement from the Supreme Court where architects and planners have challenged it.

  • Finally, the government will have to dynamite buildings like the National Museum, the newly built Jawahar Bhawan and 10 others, sacrifice thousands of trees and basically raze the Central Vista to the ground before rebuilding it.

That’s a lot of effort to give bureaucrats their rightful, decent office space.

So the key question here is, why does the government need to have this super massive built-up area of 15 lakh square metres? Unlike the older buildings set deep inside plots to let the lush greenery dominate, the new Conceptual Plan takes up so much space that each of these buildings will be constructed at the very edge of the plot blotting out light, sky, greenery and air.

2) Grandiosity over function and accessibility: Beyond reasonable requirements

The chosen architect, Bimal Patel, initially indicated that his plan would add three times the space and bring back the offices that had been shifted away earlier in a well-thought-out bid to decentralise the bloated government presence. Decentralisation has incidentally been a key Master Plan objective since the 60s. When this led to criticism, he stated that the number of government employees in the area would remain at about 52,000. This, he says, is roughly the same as now.

But as the architect Madhav Raman from LokPATH India points out, the massively hiked built-up space of 15 lakh sq metres will amount to a whopping 21.53 sq metres of office space per person if you exclude the over 5 lakh sq metres of basement and 31.58 sq metres per person if you include it.

To put this in perspective, 21.53 sq metres is roughly the size of most Indian homes.

The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana guidelines state that the size of a house for Economically Weaker Sections in an urban area starts at 30 sq metres carpet area including toilets, kitchen, and living space for 4-6 people at a minimum – that is, roughly 5-7 sq metres per person. A 2016 census report says 75 percent of Indian families live in even smaller homes.

While no one can grudge India’s bureaucrats decent office space, the palatial median of 21.53 sq metres “also violates the Department of Estates norm by double”, says Raman. The median allocation of space in government offices as per these norms, which set guidelines for allotment of office space according to seniority or rank, is between 10 and 12 sq metres. Raksha Bhavan is within FAR limits but particularly indulgent, offering its 400 officials a luxurious office space of 29,006 sq metres. “That comes to a massive 72.5 sq metres or 780 sq feet of area per person, the equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment,” adds Raman.

No one can explain why this is desirable, let alone needed. The kind of lush opulence that the bureaucracy will claim, aligns perfectly with the government’s eagerness to create imposing grandiosity rather than democratic functionality as its legacy.

Instead of making it ‘grand’ with greenery, light and space that can be shared with the citizen, this plan is made ‘grand’ by lavish lobbies, rich claddings, five star interiors and monumental built-up area “several hundred times” more than before, that only the bureaucrat or VIP can enjoy. This designated ‘Public Use’ land has been taken away from the citizen and it will remain inaccessible to him.

This blaring insensitivity to the green, low environs in Lutyens’ Delhi offering balm to Delhi’s citizens violates every maxim of contemporary architecture that prioritises sustainability and consideration to surrounding ecology. It also violates all codes and by-laws of a highly protected heritage precinct and the Master Plan that guides the whole city.

3) Post fact: Size decided before requirements were known

The chronological sequence of this gift to the bureaucracy makes for cynical clarity. It reveals a mindset bent on mindless, lavish scale, regardless of the requirement. In January 2020, the cabinet secretary, Rajeev Gauba, was reported to have written a letter to all ministries asking them to submit detailed employee details by January 15 for the project.

But the tender for consultancy services had been awarded in October 2019, three months earlier, already showing a total built-up volume that was estimated by architects at around 15 lakh sq metres!

This was expanded to more than 18 lakh sq metres with the inclusion of the Prime Minister’s Residence, Prime Minister’s Office, Vice President’s Residence, and accommodations for Special Protection Group personnel as late as November 11, 2020.

Each one of these offices currently exist with absolutely competent security, digital, satellite and defence requirements. Each one of these will be built once again with full security, digital, satellite and defence requirements.

It’s astonishing that there has been no application of thought to understand the actual need for the project, just a strong-arming of laws to push through a project based on a single whim, that Donald Trump himself would probably describe approvingly as ‘the biggest Central Vista in the world’!

4) Subverting the spirit of the law: Or how to bypass Environmental Impact Assessment

The first step to fulfilling the prime minister’s deadline of two years for a fully built Parliament that would showcase the ‘efficiency’ of the government was to somehow separate the new parliament from the rest of the Central Vista for the purposes of project approvals even though it is an obvious, critical element of the Central Vista.

A single, large-area project would require a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment Report, or EIA, that would take up to a year with seasonal studies, expert consultants, detailed scrutiny, etc. A smaller project has a lower standard of scrutiny under the EIA law.

Therefore, the Parliament was broken off from the Central Vista as if they were two separate entities. By breaking up the project into smaller pieces, the government could apply for environmental clearance through a lower standard process that does not require public hearing or a full EIA.

“Showing the new parliament as a small project, the government applied for ‘renovation and expansion’ so they could accordingly make a case for an Environmental Application not a full Environmental Impact Assessment Report,” says researcher Manju Menon of the Centre for Policy Research.

5) Reversal of process: Sanction and construction first, permission later

Equally astonishing are the zigzag steps taken at every stage to circumvent, twist and corrode the body of laws standing between the government and its grand Kremlinesque dream.

Till date, this zigzag route has achieved the following permissions:

  • Delhi Development Authority has notified land use change of the plots without due process.

  • Central Public Works Department, or CPWD, has obtained sanction from the Delhi Urban Arts Commission for constructing the new Parliament building (separately from the office blocks). This is normally done only after obtaining permission from all agencies, especially the Heritage Conservation Committee, a critical agency for protecting heritage buildings and precincts across Delhi and the NDMC, the local urban body that checks projects in its jurisdiction for compliance with developmental regulations.

But bizarrely, the CPWD has obtained the arts commission’s sanction for the Parliament without first taking mandatory approvals from either the HCC or the NDMC! In a brazen reversal of the standard process, the CPWD blithely assured the top court that it would obtain the heritage committee’s permission before construction.

But construction at the Parliament site has already started without it!

And this is how easily the strictest laws for the most protected zone in the country and its local body, which has people’s representatives on it, were simply bypassed.

It’s a measure of the determined assault on propriety and process that contracts have been handed out, 400 massive trees chopped down, earth moving equipment used to dig holes before permission has been granted – while the apex court is still determining the question of its legality! The precedent set for ordinary citizens is self-explanatory.

6) Gross Impropriety: Heights are 50 percent higher than permitted in Grade One Heritage Zone

The new buildings in Patel’s plan are 39 metres high. “If the government bothers to apply later to the Heritage Conservation Committee for permission at all,” says Raman, “ this height will instantly violate the sacrosanct parameters of Grade One, that is, to protect the skyline of the entire heritage precinct”. Since the government has arbitrarily bypassed this step for the new Parliament, there is a real possibility this casual treatment of the law might become the new ‘normal’ for all buildings in the Central Vista plan.

Currently, all the old buildings slated to be demolished have heights below 26 metres and, therefore, do not violate this norm. At 39 metres, Patel’s buildings will be almost as high as India Gate. This makes them 50 percent taller than the surrounding trees, which stand at about 26 metres. This means a person cycling or walking down these streets will be able to see the sky only if he cranes his neck upwards at a 90-degree angle. The skyline will only be of massive stone-clad monoliths.

And India Gate, once standing proud and tall on the land for miles, will stand diminished and indistinguishable – simply one among many.

7) Absurd and terrible irony: Legal options are perfectly viable

The absurd and terrible irony is this. If the government:

  • goes back to the original plots that have always been designated for ‘Government Office Use’ and currently house government offices east of Janpath (Nirman Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan, Udyog Bhawan & Krishi Bhawan, etc)

  • uses a legally permissible FAR of 2,

  • retains the current standard height restriction of 26 metres,

Then it can easily get an average area of 11-12 sq metres per employee for 52,300 government employees. This plan will not violate land use norms. It will not violate heritage skyline or height restrictions, and it will not violate the office allotment norms of the estates department.

In this sorry saga of bent rules, the biggest loser will be the citizen who will lose this magnificent civic space once these irreversible changes are made. A space of grandeur and emotion, democratically shared by its VIPs and common citizens alike, will be altered forever.

The thousands of sacrificed trees, the demolished buildings, the forceful imposition of the state’s might and the wilful disregard of the citizen will then simply herald a defining moment for the public to contemplate its own irrelevance in this new, elitist era of Indian democracy.

Also Read : Central Vista: Why Modi’s New New Delhi isn't a shining city
Also Read : PM’s house on Rajpath: How a super elite is capturing Delhi’s land
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