Central Vista: Alpana Kishore rebuts government’s response to her article, Part 1

Looking London, talking Tokyo.

WrittenBy:Alpana Kishore
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The ministry of housing and urban affairs, or MoHUA, has specifically responded to a story written by me in Newslaundry last month. It has claimed that “the writer does not have proper understanding of the facts connected with the subject; it has therefore led to several misrepresentations.”

A point-by-point rebuttal follows in Part 2 of this article.

This Part 1 is a story about the nature of the response itself and what it tells us about the regime it represents.

The story I wrote dealt with the unlawful nature of the Central Vista project and the impunity with which the government has violated the sanctioning practice, urban law and democratic process. It engaged the macro questions that are at the heart of this project’s illegitimacy.

The first of these questions is the open subversion of urban law. The government declares a once-in-a-lifetime national urban project but decides not to submit plans for municipal sanction to a local body like all citizens do. No authority will bear responsibility for checking the project’s bye-law compliance and signing its sanction. It will be self-sanctioned by CPWD, a construction agency.

This brings urban law into the territory of an anarchical swing through the jungle. The idea of evading municipal sanction itself throws up questions of both impunity and inequity. How can a state be entitled to flout the law that it enforces on its citizens?

Next is the anti-democratic opaqueness of procedure. In a world of open source technology and instant information, it requires superhuman efforts to ensure that not even one technical drawing exists in the public domain despite repeated promises. Even architects can only guess at how many floors or how much FAR the project entails. If this project “will stand as a symbol of national identity” as Team MoHUA describes, how can the people and democracy whose name it is being built in have absolutely no input in or knowledge of this vast Rs 22,000 crore enterprise?

Crafting the subversion is the policy mindset that views regulation as hindrance. The law is seen as an obstacle to be removed – not as a normal part of development to adhere to. Standard, transparent protocols of high standards that herald a nation’s presence in the developed world recede backwards into a landscape of a Tau-style free-for-all where reason ends up being a dog kicked to the kerb. In this landscape of entitlement, the law becomes a midwife to help the state in its unquestioned capture of land.

As the government shreds the Master Plan and its careful balances of public and private, commercial and leisure spaces, it places itself firmly above the law to avoid scrutiny. But if the state is an overriding player that can destroy or build at will, how then do cities plan for the future? What role is left for the ordinary citizen as a stakeholder of the city in this power play of high stakes?

Critical to this descent into impunity is the hellish undermining of intellect and expertise. Professional committees, many of them constitutionally empowered, are kneecapped to get this project on the road any which way. This shuts down wise, decent counsel, to achieve approvals for unthinkable schemes, in complete violation of regulatory law and even the law that governs these statutory bodies!

The Delhi Urban Arts Commission, or DUAC, for instance is not allowed to ‘sanction’ a project. Yet it does! The Heritage Conservation Committee is not allowed to accept proposals from CPWD. Yet it does! Buildings in a Grade 1 Heritage Zone can’t be touched without intricate, detailed approvals. Yet 18 will be demolished.

Strenuous efforts impede, block and finally restrain independent, professional views at any cost.

But how does a rational, sane urban government function without domain experts and independent assessments upholding the law? Will anyone ever again tell the truth or stand up for our benighted cities? Or will the law books be tossed aside to abandon them to a reign of shadowy contractors and authority figures making whimsical demands yielded immediately by compromised institutions?

Finally at the root of this illegitimate project is its deeply anti-people nature. Neither asked, nor consulted, one hundred acres of land is snatched from the public in the capital’s premier space, the showcase of the republic, without discussion. It is no small space. People are barely allowed to mourn its loss. Public hearings are exercises in despair where formalities hurriedly wrap up in the 2.5 undignified, ignominious and wretched minutes where a citizen can have his say. None are listened to.

Democratic governments by nature are custodians of heritage, buildings, assets and legacy for the years they are in power. They are not the owners. As architect Gautam Bhatia has repeatedly written, you can’t “let the babysitter decide” the course of your child’s life.

How are we doing just that?

These were the questions raised in the story on actions taken by the government. These were the questions that should have been answered in their response. None of them have been.

Team MoHUA’s response: Looking London, talking Tokyo

Instead this is how Team MoHUA answered.

Like trains passing one another on parallel tracks in opposite trajectories, the questions I raise move in one direction, while the answers Team MoHUA gives move in another. There is no meaningful connection between the two – a government that seems uneasy with democratic norms and instinctively comfortable with hierarchy and obedience – and the citizens who try to question it. It considers itself as a clear ruling elite, not really answerable for its actions.

The lack of practice at real engagement with the people by a state unused to it is therefore painfully visible. Team MoHUA’s response is more a government handout and less a half-hearted ‘rebuttal’.

It reveals the awkward jollity of a boss forced to treat his juniors as social equals at the office tea party. Used to talking at them – it’s hard to talk to them. Therefore, the answers are unconvincing, don’t bother too much about accuracy, rely on loud repetition of official approvals, and betray the deep disinterest in the citizen who is expected to know his place and not ask any questions.

The “Guiding Principles” of the Central Vista project as laid out in Team MoHUA’s response reflect this superficiality of engagement. To read them is to be suspended in disbelief in a tent of distorting mirrors at the village mela, where everything is diametrically opposite to the reality on the ground! Thin looks fat, up is down, and square becomes round.

So the first Guiding Principle is “conservation of heritage” in a project that will destroy the heritage skyline that honours India Gate with 9-storey buildings! The second Guiding Principle is “expanding public space” in a project that has unapologetically grabbed 100 acres of it. The third Guiding Principle of the project is “Transit Oriented Development” that the government swore in the Supreme Court it would never implement in the Central Vista – a death knell for its preservation.

Conceptually too, the response is no different. How they answer, the information they choose to reveal, points to the take-it-or-leave-it stance of a government that wants a clear distinction between the ruler and the ruled. There is absolutely no sincere attempt to engage with the areas of propriety, morality or legitimacy raised in the story. Instead, there is a choreographed dance that carefully skirts these issues.

Process vs outcome

Team MoHUA holds up the approvals from DUAC, HCC, CVC, etc as evidence of correctness and legitimacy. Their focus is on outcome. But the story was about process. Team MoHUA merely reiterates the signatures and paperwork that they have collected to build an edifice of lawful sanction that is as precarious as a house of cards. Yes, they managed those formal approvals. The question is – how? The story questioned the illegitimacy, opacity, subversion and anti-public energy that went into getting those pieces of paper. Team MoHUA is not interested in answering these glaring violations of the law beyond a robotic reiteration of the official approvals. They dismiss their unlawful process as irrelevant.

Legality vs propriety

Team MoHUA defends the legality of an old colonial law, the Government Buildings Act, 1899, brought into play after 120 years to prop up the illegitimate conversion of CPWD to local body. Yes, an all-powerful government has the right to pass any law it likes. The question is – should it? Why is an undemocratic law that places the government at an imbalanced, superior position to the citizens a good thing? Should it not treat them as equals? Laws like the GBA 1899 enforce the belief that government exists not for the people but high above them with no need to follow the law of the land.

The story asked why such a law should have any place in a democracy. Team MoHUA’s reply is that “this position has been accepted by DUAC, NDMC, DDA and other local bodies throughout the country”. In other words, the question of “why” doesn’t need to be answered since it has been “accepted”.

Entitlement vs equity

Team MoHUA dismisses NDMC’s bypass by the Central Vista project as unimportant. This suggests an extraordinary degree of entitlement for the state that doesn’t even want to answer why it chose this illegality. Yes, technically, the state can dress up CPWD as a local body and self-sanction its plans – but the story asked what the message was to the ordinary citizen?

If the Indian government can subvert the law, why should a citizen adhere to it? Can he too like the government expect to escape punishment for non-adherence to bye-laws? Team MoHUA’s answer is that CPWD will do the same job of checking compliance that is originally NDMC’s. In other words, the government does not need to answer its citizens about its cosy, internal arrangements as process is dispensable.

Professionalism vs homemade whimsy

Team MoHUA calls this a project of necessity. But in reality it is a dinosaur in the 21st century – its irrational desire for monumental buildings and dated brick and mortar mindset, puzzlingly tone-deaf to the highly prized environmental and heritage concerns of today. In the digital world of Greta Thunbergs and Climate Strikes whose global messages are downloaded by teens in seconds, it mows down thousands of trees and demolishes 4.5 lakh square feet to build a vast 17.5 lakh sq feet project in a delicate Grade 1 Heritage Zone.

The story asked why professional sense and reason were not deployed by letting urban committees advise correctly and why whimsical decisionmaking bypassed process. Team MoHUA believes the answer of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” is enough of an explanation for the ‘normalisation’ of the abnormal.

Fake narrative vs authenticity

Team MoHUA’s response recycles fake narratives about the project without embarrassment. The story questioned why public land was taken away. Team MoHUA reply was “rent saving”, despite knowing the truth that, a) the government pays a leasing amount for its own property only to itself because no government offices exist on private property and, b) that this arrangement will continue with the new buildings.

On the whole, there is not even a basic attempt to give an authentic response to a rightful query from the public. The pity is that it need not have been this way. All that a citizen wants is that development goes through lawful process. The maintenance and refurbishing of the Central Vista could have been a transformative partnership between the state and the citizen with open, democratic and transparent processes.

The state has made the process adversarial by treating the public as an enemy it has to keep secrets from, an erratic entity that has to be kept in place for it should not come in the way of the lofty decisionmaking the state is doing for it. As with all authoritarian democracies, this is a one-way monologue. Like an announcement on loop delivered from a megaphone slung atop a pole in a market square, the citizen can only keep listening. It doesn’t matter what they have to say.

The only question to ask right now is one the citizens should ask themselves. If this project is of such great national importance, who are the beneficiaries? As losers of 100 acres of public land in the capital’s beating heart, it is certainly not we, the people.

This is the first part of a rebuttal to the government’s response to a Newslaundry piece on the Central Vista project. Read the second part.


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