Do key choices for Central Vista add up to 'world class'? Hint: Sustainability isn't on the list

The treatment of the tree cover tells the story.

ByAlpana Kishore
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Do key choices for Central Vista add up to 'world class'? Hint: Sustainability isn't on the list
Shambhavi Thakur
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This is Part Two of a multi-part series. Read Part One here.

At COP26, the climate summit held earlier this month, India pledged its target year for net zero carbon emissions at 2070, 10 to 20 years later than all nations, even China (2060), whose manufacturing output far exceeds this country’s. Its argument that Third World countries need time to ease out fossil fuels and money that the richer nations must contribute to reduce poverty and allow growth is absolutely valid.

Yet, the intent to change at the ground level is wholly absent. While big ticket items and international commitments like renewable energy growth are fully on track, there is a ruthlessness surrounding development goals that kicks sustainability to the curb. Unlike the European Parliament that wants to “set an example in its environmental approach”, the state in India continues to dismiss its relevance as a factor.

Despite being on the frontline of climate change with floods in Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Uttarakhand, cyclones, heat waves, landslides and melting glaciers that have wreaked devastation; the state will not make the connection between its reckless goading of environmental limits and the severe costs that its citizens have to pay. On the contrary, it has diluted its environmental laws to give a punishment-free pass to projects that degrade and pollute.

The Central Vista project is a showcase of this lack of intent.

It is why it is exempt from the total ban on construction imposed during the current record-breaking pollution in Delhi. It is why its tag of “world class” is a meaningless phrase that promises modernity through smart systems but actually delivers a wrecking ball to the environment around it.

It is unimaginable today for any world-class project to sign off on the slaughter of nearly 6,000 trees, the horrific carbon footprint of the physical demolition of 18 buildings, the immense water costs of building 10 new ones or the addition of massive traffic from increased capacity that will smash fragile heritage zones.

Yet this is just the tiny tip of the list of massive collateral damage from this project.

How can this “world-class” project be so out of sync with the world? To find out, it would be useful to consider the thought that went into this once-in-generations project. Being a national space intimately associated with the public, how did the architects imagine its design relating to the larger urban area around it? Situated in a prized Grade-1 heritage precinct, what were the likely choices they would have faced vis-à-vis its reconstruction?

To take just three key choices that every such project faces:

  • Destructiveness of process, ie to demolish or to renovate?

Does it make sense to destroy on such a vast scale (4.5 lakh sqm of built space) to achieve renewal, or could there be other less extreme alternatives to protect the environment and heritage like adaptive re-use or a mix of old and new?

  • Waste, ie how much to build vs how much is needed?

Should the new construction be a reasonable projection of the required and potential needs or should it be a statement building with epic scale? If so, how much should that scale be and in what proportion? The Central Vista project will build 4x more the space for the same number of people.

  • Permanent resource loss, ie to bypass or respect ecology?

Does maintenance of vital natural resources in the area like the water table or retaining the 6,000 tree cover built over decades have a value? If so, what is it worth? Is it rational to assign it zero value? Should future costs like potential flooding caused by the damming up of the water or a devastating loss of green cover be considered? Should the denial of these assets to future generations be a factor in the design?

It is hard to find evidence that these factors had any role to play in Central Vista. Instead it seems creating the design as a statement of “New India” was worth all three. That the cost of this “efficient” infrastructure would permanently damage the heart of Delhi was just not a consideration.

The first choice – destructiveness, ie deciding to demolish, what to demolish, and how much to demolish

The first choice made was to create a design that required the architect to demolish 18 buildings and destroy 4,000 to 6,000 trees in a space where they are its USP.

The 18 buildings included those considered precious because of their contents (National Museum and IGNCA), their historical status as the first examples of modern Indian architecture (many), and their protected status in the most important Grade-1 heritage zone in the country (many).

Crucial hurdles of this particular choice must have come up. As such radical destruction would be totally illegal, getting permissions through would require a massive go-around of the law and physical costs would be stupendous.

Yet despite these flapping red flags, the intriguing thing is that this very choice was made with an absolute lack of value assigned to the factors above.

How else could it have been done?

For instance, did it have to be a binary choice of the buildings or the trees? Could the design have considered the buildings and the trees? Should the geometry of the new design have been the sole priority or would a nuanced redesign with extensions be appropriate for India? Even if the final conclusion was that demolition was required, did it have to apply to 18 buildings or more than half of Rajpath?

Or did the chosen architect gift himself a completely free hand to create a brand new utopia in the most powerful space in the country, aided by state might that would waive off the annoyance of strict regulations or even a sanction – a luxury utterly impossible in the normal world?

To study or not to study

Architect Patel has oft repeated his impatience with studies as determinants of design and recently stated that the decision to axe the National Museum, IGNCA and level their plots for the Secretariat buildings was made right at the start by googling the sites on Google Earth.

“Design starts with a sketch,” he says. “It’s in the process of design that you start figuring out what data to collect and what needs can be fulfilled, which ones cannot – you see new opportunities, you see impossibilities, constraints, etc. So...you cannot wait for the studies, you have to start designing and simultaneously do the studies as you go along. We had Google Images to start with – thank god we have lots of information from Google Images...enough to start your early sketches.”

Yet it is clear that Google Images were enough to finish the sketches as well.

In the preliminary design presented in October 2019 the choice had been taken to remove the National Museum and the IGNCA to make way for the massive doughnut-shape Secretariat buildings. In the months that followed, no study was done on a basic count of the trees or their maturity and positions on site that could prompt any design changes to save them. Barring minor tweaks, the “early sketch” remained the same from start to finish – one that would require a full clearance of mature trees from the site.

See initial design plan on top and the latest design plan below. There is not much difference between the two.

See initial design plan on top and the latest design plan below. There is not much difference between the two.

It is also clear that no rethinking of “constraint” or “impossibilities” was prompted by Google Earth’s visually self-evident lavish tree cover at the IGNCA, National Museum, Vigyan Bhawan, and the vice president’s residence. Tree assets were simply not assigned a value in the design process – so different even from the top entries for the competition for the War Museum in 2016 under the same regime, whose key conceptual idea was to protect the trees and build their designs around them.

The lush green IGNCA plot above, and across Rajpath, the vice president's house and Vigyan Bhawan plots below.

The lush green IGNCA plot above, and across Rajpath, the vice president's house and Vigyan Bhawan plots below.

Close-up of tree cover at IGNCA.

Close-up of tree cover at IGNCA.

The plan remained a monolithic 10-block set of buildings that could only be built by using the most extreme methods available – demolishing 18 buildings and razing 6,000 trees in a Grade-1 heritage zone!

This tone-deaf response to a colossally important core value at the heart of contemporary architecture – acting in harmony with the environment – is a curious trait for a modern architect to display.

Yet Patel’s vast public projects from the Sabarmati riverfront to Kashi to Central Vista have each explicitly made clear their dismissal of long-term sustainability or minimal waste in favour of “destroy and clear” solutions like Kashi, where full destruction plays the initiating role, or “instant fix” solutions like Sabarmati riverfront that produce clean design at the cost of inevitable faults down the line.

He is open with his deep distrust of the idea explaining to millennials in his student audience, his diffidence in it giving it an influential say in the public projects he has been entrusted with

“This word sustainable...If you don’t say it’s sustainable these days...you’ll be shot probably,” he says. “But this is a school of architecture – we have to be talking honestly with each other. We bandy about the word ‘sustainability’ but it’s a very loose word – I don’t know what it means. Somebody please define sustainability for me here. In fact, if you think about it carefully, it's very, very difficult to define.”

Not many globally known architects would dare to make this choice of public indifference to the environment and the firm determination that the trees and fully built structures would make way for the design of the building – no matter what.

Yet since Grade-1 heritage laws in the strictest zone in the country had been discarded, public consultation rushed through in two days of a sham exercise and local body sanction bypassed altogether, it was possibly assumed this set of regulations too would be smoothened away by the might of the state?

How the state discovered the trees in IGNCA were enough to be deemed a forest

But the story takes a twist here. The guardian sensibilities of a common citizen unexpectedly activated a dormant state machinery, which then reluctantly, had to start doing its job. This was possibly an unforeseen googly.

See the sequence of events.

In March 2021, the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the Secretariat buildings authored by Kadam Environmental Consultants, a Gujarat firm, stated that 3,230 trees would be transplanted out of 4,642 on various Central Vista sites based on a “rapid survey supplemented by satellite imagery”. There was no talk of a “deemed forest” so this implies no detailed physical survey was done. The forest department in Delhi is tasked with the job of identifying 'deemed forest' areas so it is unlikely it was contacted, nor did it step up proactively to give this information.

The EIA report also stated that the impact on ecology and biodiversity of removing 3,000 trees from this area (besides other issues) would be “negligible”.

The process for construction therefore took off rapidly.

On April 20, 2021, the first tender inviting bids for construction of the first set of Secretariat buildings on the IGNCA plot was issued by CPWD. Multiple tender invites would follow for several reasons.

On May 6, 2021, these buildings were "approved" by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission without local body sanction (an approval it is explicitly not allowed to do).

On June 4, 2021, the tender for removal and transplantation of trees was awarded.

However on June 7, activist Bhavreen Kandhari wrote to the forest department. She asked why these trees should be cut especially as such a large number on the IGNCA site might constitute a protected 'deemed forest' that would require far stricter permissions to cut down.

It seemed as if the department was 'unaware' of this possibility.

In August 2021 it seemingly went on to 'discover' that the number of trees on the IGNCA plot totaled 2,300 – indeed, enough to be declared a 'deemed forest' under the rules. A report on August 10, 2021 quotes forest officials saying that “such permission can only be availed of from the central government” and that the CPWD would need to “send a fresh proposal to be able to transplant the displaced trees”.

Since the tendering process was also in limbo around this time, it is likely everything had to be put on hold. Meanwhile the IGNCA had already been emptied and its precious contents shifted to Janpath Hotel in early July.

Kandhari asks a simple question. “How can a giant project such as this not know already that this would be a ‘deemed forest’? This just exposes the sham that a proper environmental impact assessment had been done.”

But puzzlingly, the government did know that this could be a 'deemed forest' possibly as far back as January 2020 when Kandhari herself wrote a letter asking the forest department to check on possible deemed forest areas coming under the newly announced Central Vista project.

It was definitely aware on March 10, 2021 when a general letter of justification for the project was issued and the clearance of 'deemed forest' under the Forest Conservation Act was specifically mentioned. See the image below.

So, why did it have to submit a fresh proposal in August? Does this imply the government was fully aware of the rules but hoped to get by with easier permissions by not filing with the correct authority when it filed in March for environmental clearance?

Interestingly, the first detailed survey of the trees within IGNCA came around the same time on August 4, 2021, when the CPWD responded to an RTI request filed on July 13, 2021.

Possibly this detailed survey had not been done earlier or possibly, it was not considered prudent to release. It contained precious information. It stated that of the 1,838 out of 2,300 IGNCA trees that would be transplanted, 520 shockingly had girths over two feet wide and 144 of these had girths over five feet wide. In other words, these were heritage trees that would have taken roughly 60-70 years to grow! See below.

This information appeared after the EIA had been filed in March, buildings had been sanctioned, and tenders issued or awarded. Or it was discovered before but just not disclosed. Either way it made no difference to the project that was already sure of its clearances one way or the other even if delayed temporarily.

What’s evident is that had the activists not filed these RTIs, the bulk of the trees would have been mechanically axed or removed without their loss ever being surveyed or quantified.

As of now, the trees await that other slaughter – death by transplantation. This has been a repeatedly tried and badly failed experiment. The transplanted trees will be sent off 50 km away to Badarpur to the National Thermal Power Corporation Eco Park that is not open to public entry. No public assessment can be done of these trees.

It is hugely sobering to see what is likely to happen to them based on past experience.

Most likely, they will share the same terrible fate as the 404 lush, mature trees removed from the new Parliament plot in a frenzied operation in November 2020 to ensure the ground-breaking ceremony in December well before the Supreme Court could even deliver its judgement on the Parliament construction.

All 404 were transplanted in the NTPC Eco Park, 23 km away from Central Vista. This, despite the notification on September 16, 2020, that claimed transplantation would be within “eight pockets in Central Vista Area” itself.

A revised notification issued on November 9, 2021, signed by the principal secretary of the Delhi government, still claims "transplantation of 404 trees which are standing on site" shall be done and that 130 out of 404 trees will be transplanted in Central Vista.

But there are no trees standing on site! All 404 were removed 11 months ago!

Activist Kandhari tried to check on the transplanted trees but was denied access to the Eco Park. After going through alternative routes to get a vantage point she finally managed to get a few pictures from a distance

The reality is heartrending.

See below the pictures of the canopies of the trees as they existed before transplantation and then the dried up trunks that is their condition after transplantation.

Currently, the 1,838 trees in the IGNCA plot await the same fate. The 500 odd other trees will simply be chopped down. The environment ministry’s regional empowered committee has “in-principle” approved a proposal for diversion of 8.11 hectares of “deemed forest” land. It awaits a Stage 2 clearance under the Forest Conservation Act before the cutters move in.

Meanwhile in "efficient and productive" style, the tender for construction on the IGNCA plot was awarded to L&T on October 27, 2021. Mati Ghar within IGNCA and the old bungalow with wooden panelling have already been demolished despite the official lack of forest clearance required before this can be done.

See this video of IGNCA in its full, lush glory of 2,300 trees for the very last time. Video courtesy @delhibeautifuldelhiugly.

Next: Part Three - How did the choices of waste and permanent resource loss weigh on the decision-making process of the Central Vista project?

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