Growth and sustainability can go hand in hand. Why isn’t that reflected in Central Vista?

Instead, citizens are paying the deadly cost of dirty growth.

ByAlpana Kishore
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Growth and sustainability can go hand in hand. Why isn’t that reflected in Central Vista?
Shambhavi Thakur
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This is Part Three of a multi-part series. Read Part One and Part Two.

This year’s RIBA National Award, one of several annual awards given out by the Royal Institute of British Architects was won by the redesign of a dilapidated, small, cheap house in London for what Financial Times described as its “radical” approach.

The House-Within-a-House project builds around an old house instead of demolishing or rebuilding. By doing so, it not only expands the space spectacularly with adaptive re-use but also saves four tons of carbon a year (the equivalent sequestered by 5.2 acres of US forests annually) by simply reusing 12,670 bricks and 12.85 metres cubed of concrete that they didn’t demolish.

The original, run-down old house.

The original, run-down old house.

A wraparound ‘skin’ of grey bricks and extensions transforms the old house without demolishing it.

A wraparound ‘skin’ of grey bricks and extensions transforms the old house without demolishing it.

Close-up of the exterior finish of grey bricks.

Close-up of the exterior finish of grey bricks.

From inside the house.

From inside the house.

The design of the brick walls that were added around the old house.

The design of the brick walls that were added around the old house.

If 5.2 acres of forest worth of carbon emission can be saved by not demolishing one small house of 233 sq metres, imagine how much carbon will be released by demolishing four lakh sqm of the Central Vista.

The world-class ideas that give an indication of where architecture is headed in the future, are those that consider the bigger picture. Efficient infrastructure or great design within a building is of no use if its surroundings are degraded or suffer loss by the impact of the building.

However the decision making of the Central Vista project seems to see ‘development’ and ‘progress’ in their old bricks and mortar avatar of commercial profitability, where grim pollution and casual destruction of natural resources are an acceptable and ‘normal’ price to pay.

This mindset implies that India has to suffer the bleak, ecologically deadly cycle of the West’s industrial revolution in the 18th century powered by fossil fuels, before it can emerge on the other side with high standards. That’s why it has asked for extra time to reach net zero emissions by 2070, last of all nations on the planet.

But we are three centuries ahead in time and technology and we don’t have to suffer! There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Indian laws are drafted with this logical thought. Unfortunately since the idea of sustainability itself has no value in any calculation of development, they are set aside by the biggest players – especially the state. Standards are consciously dialed back to the lowest Third World levels of knowledge and understanding despite fully knowing better – only to avoid restrictions on commercial expansion and profitability that sustainability will have to impose.

The rest of the world knows differently. Growth is not held hostage to sustainability and both do coexist because technology and thoughtful responses are applied. There is absolutely no reason the citizen must pay the terrible cost of dirty growth.

But we are already paying it in India and will continue to do so because the state fundamentally believes growth is incompatible with sustainability.

Waste – the second choice. Gratuitous and illegal FAR

This belief is reflected in the state’s conscious choice to build nearly 400 percent more than the office space being demolished, in the pursuit of ‘efficient’ land use that squeezes every possible bit of floor area ratio, or FAR, to build as much as possible.

So, 4.58 lakh sqm of built up area will be demolished and 17.02 lakh sqm will be constructed, according to the EIA/EMP issued by the CPWD See tables below. This is an irrational overbuild of excess space for no particular reason other than the determination for greater FAR.

The EIA/EMP issued by the CPWD.

The EIA/EMP issued by the CPWD.

It is also illegal!

FAR is built area as a ratio expressed as a percentage of the plot size. Floor space index, or FSI, is a similar term but is a multiplier index expressed as a factor. They both indicate built volume.

When the Master Plan Delhi 2021 came out in 2001, all buildings designated as government use were restricted to 200 FAR (FSI of 2). This means the amount of built up area can be two times the amount of the plot area according to the legal level set by the Master Plan. In 2016, this was increased to 300 except Zone D, in which Central Vista sits, where it was specifically restricted to 200. See pic below.

Architect Patel himself said recently that everything had been built within permissible FAR regulations. “Mind you, these buildings are not any more dense than by laws allow – very simply put! It’s the FSI that’s allowed on this plot and if this was a private plot, you would have to allow this building. So if it’s a government plot...(why not).”

But as senior architects like Prem Chandavarkar have pointed out at various forums, the numbers don’t lie. (See Table 1 and 2.) Consider just one set of buildings – the Common Central Secretariat (CCS) 1, 2 & 3 that are to be built on the IGNCA plot.

Table courtesy Madhav Raman, LokPATH.

Table courtesy Madhav Raman, LokPATH.

A) Plot area of CCS 1,2 & 3 the first set of Secretariat buildings (on the IGNCA plot) in Table 1 is 1,05,562.3 sqm.

B) Permissable FAR on the plot is 2

C) Actual FAR Achieved is 2

D) Basement area only of same plot in Table 1 is 1,43,300 sqm.

E) Total built up area of same plot (including basement) in Table 2 is 4,52,500 sqm.

The formula for FAR is:

This is an FAR of nearly 300 (or FSI of 3) that is totally illegal being in excess of 50 percent of permissible limits as seen in B) in Table 1.

The number that is currently applicable, quoted as the permissible FAR percentage in the EIA/EMP table is 2.

But the number for Actual FAR Achieved in the report has also been written as 2 though it is actually 3! (See C.)

The heights of the buildings tell a story too. It is simply impossible to go higher than the existing buildings with an FAR 200/FSI factor of 2.

However an FAR 300/FSI factor of 3 makes the buildings as high as India Gate and that’s why they will tower three stories higher than the current buildings and illegally disrupt the protected heritage skyline.

See pics.

The purple colour represents the height of the current buildings set against the new buildings.

The purple colour represents the height of the current buildings set against the new buildings.

The treeline comes to about halfway up the buildings. Their size can be conjectured by looking at the car pictured alongside.

The treeline comes to about halfway up the buildings. Their size can be conjectured by looking at the car pictured alongside.

It is very conceivable that next year by the time the project is over, the government might change the rules to make this legal. It certainly has the unhindered power to do so. Could this possibly be the reason that Patel insists it is legal, confident with the understanding it soon will be?

But the point is, its plan has been ‘passed’ as legal at a time it is completely illegal. It is also currently being built illegally. Since there is no overseeing sanctioning body, it will somehow ‘become’ legal just because no committee or local body or institution can question it.

It is also a gratuitous overbuild to the point of excess. Any assessment of actual need seems to have had no input in the final design. There is a gluttony of space being built that is not rational according to logical parameters.

Consider the numbers another way. The architect has repeatedly asserted that the number of employees in Central Vista will remain the same as before. 54,800 employees currently work in Central Vista. They currently occupy 6.25 lakh sqm of space in the 18 buildings (which will be demolished) plus North and South Blocks (which will be vacated). This comes to about 11 sqm per person.

While the current offices may be disorganised and badly in need of modernisation, this is a more than comfortable equation as far as area is concerned. What this means is that there is enough space in the current offices to house these 54,800 in a better way with reorganisation, nuanced rebuild and minimal demolitions and waste.

In the new Secretariat, this will now increase by 300 percent to 17.02 lakh sqm. Those 54,800 people will now have 31 sqm per person. (See table below.)

But why do the same number of users need three times the space to perform the same functions? This is far more than the optimum industry level of office space allocation that architects say is generally 10-12 sqm. Even if we add modern facilities and rationalise the same amount of space in a new building, add conference rooms, gyms, cafes, yoga and music rooms etc, this increase is grossly out of scale without any rational parameters.

The utilities consumption reflects this excess too. Electricity requirement is projected at three times of what is currently used. Water consumption is four times as much. See below.

The third choice – permanent resource loss

This gratuitous overbuild is also reflected in the Rajpath lawns that have been extensively tampered with despite being a Grade-1 heritage zone with full protections for everything from lampposts to skylines to canals and lawns, etc. No EIA has been done as required by law and no permissions taken to alter Grade-1 heritage zone lawns either as required by law.

Yet, a recent publicity blitz by the design firm HCP Consultants has revealed beautiful ‘after’ graphics of lush green lawns with clean paved walkways, regulated parking, neat rows of trees etc. Only 100-110 trees will be removed for public facilities including toilets but this is seen as a minor sacrifice for the people-friendly upgrade that will hugely enhance this long neglected public space.

Is it possible that here, at least, the Central Vista project could maybe get it right after the protests and the heartbreak?

Not quite.

Overbuilding extracts a price – in this case the permanent resource loss of natural systems that this open, heavily green space has helped to flourish.

The new designs rely on a heavy use of additions and accretions. There is street furniture, paving along Rajpath itself, sectional walkways in the grass, and extensive parking with pavers. Earlier the ice cream wallas left no indication of their presence when they went home, leaving the lawns pristine. Now a concrete official vendor space will permanently exist replacing the old informal arrangement. Toilets, subways, a stepped garden and performance space will also permanently sit atop the lawns.

Several architects and conservationists have raised fears about this concretisation of the lawns in the name of public upgradation and its permanently destructive effects on rainwater flow and water recharge patterns

Architect Patel allays these fears, claiming that only a “tiny” amount of the lawns are paved. Thus he says that “more water percolates in the ground and will go straight into the river that is one km away. So, in a sense, that is water harvesting...if you think it is.”

But his diffidence conveys that he himself doesn’t think it is – because disturbingly, this is very far from the reality of what is happening.

While outwardly, 105 acres of lawns will be ‘preserved’ as before and ‘enhanced’ for public benefit, the fact is that 60 percent of the lawns will be paved over by concrete and stone in yet another indifferent non-world-class shrug to the water ecology of this zone in the centre of Delhi. This will dam up the natural water flow from the Yamuna.

This is how the numbers add up.

The pre-existing Rajpath lawns where water fully percolates down were made up of four rectangular blocks and two triangles that totalled 105.06 acres. The bricked canals running through the lawns totalled 18.32 acres.

Therefore the soft areas for full water percolation came to 86.74 acres (105.6 – 18.32 acres). This will drastically change

Parking will now take up one-third of the lawns, ie 35.02 acres. This is enough space for 1,364 cars and 40 buses! But encouraging parking by giving enhanced facilities goes completely against the stated government policy to reduce cars on the road, discourage parking and encourage public transport. Besides, no public park in the world sets about allocating vast parking spaces because it makes no sense. No one wants timed busloads of tourists spilling out to overwhelm this beautiful space like an overcrowded pit stop – rather, it should be an open space for all to enjoy as and when they want.

The paving on the lawns is next. Architect Madhav Raman calculates the exact measurements. The old lal bajri on either side of the actual road will be fully paved. Google Earth images point out a 4.8 metres width – enough for four horses of the president's bodyguard during the Republic Day parade.

The yellow line depicts the width of the horse path.

The yellow line depicts the width of the horse path.

A concrete walkway will also run all through on both sides of the lawns, of approximately 2.5 metres width. This includes cross paths that disrupt the rolling lawns at four sections (in complete contravention of heritage rules in a Grade-1 zone). Multiply these widths by the length and the paved walkways and horse path comes to 14.53 acres.

Finally, Rajpath will have eight sets of public toilets built across a 1.5 km stretch of the lawns. Two already exist at Vijay Chowk and two more are proposed on the India Gate lawns. So, the total stretch of Central Vista from Vijay Chowk to India Gate Lawns, which is 2.25 km and 105 acres in area, will be serviced by 12 toilet complexes.

Each set of toilets is lower ground. That means it has a long lead-in slope for entry that covers a large area.

Each set of toilets is lower ground. That means it has a long lead-in slope for entry that covers a large area.

As a comparison, Hyde Park in London has three public toilets in 350 acres. Central Park in New York has 13 permanent public toilets in 843 acres – most of them attached to functional buildings within the park like the zoo, the theatre, the lakeside restaurant and terrace, etc.

“Over the years, NDMC has already put several public conveniences around India Gate – these are intentionally separated and dispersed,” says Raman. “Twelve toilets is a really gratuitous burden that overwhelms a heritage precinct. People are not coming for the conveniences, they’re coming for the greens which you’ve drastically reduced!”

He creates a rough ‘map’ of the concrete overlaying the actual plan to illustrate how overwhelming these additions are.

Red and yellow map indicating paved areas on Rajpath lawns.

Red and yellow map indicating paved areas on Rajpath lawns.

The yellow marked parking and paving add up to 49.55 acres of new concretisation. That is roughly 53 percent of the soft lawn area (86.74 acres).

Add the red spaces (vending, toilets, performances) and you could reach around 60-70 percent of concretisation of the lawns. None of these existed before.

To add to them are the 11 Secretariat buildings with two-story deep basements and an underground rail that will also cover a vast block of the Central Vista area, traditionally a critical watershed area of Delhi that connects the Ridge to the Yamuna.

“This is going to be like a continuous underground dam,” adds architect Narayan Moorthy. “Groundwater flows here above and below. If you have 5.5 lakh sqm of hard RCC basements and a special underground rail connecting them and you are concretising 60 percent of the lawns with superfluous infrastructure and parking – it will immediately stop percolation and dam up the flow of all water channels which will have unimaginable consequences on groundwater recharge and rainwater flow patterns.”

“You cannot justify this by any planning standard.”

And yet, it is justified by the state.

In answer to a precise question on these issues raised by MP Jawhar Sircar in Parliament on Wednesday, on environmental clearance of the redevelopment of the Central Vista Avenue; the ministry of environment, forest and climate change had this to say:

“As per information provided by the ministry of housing and urban affairs and CPWD, no specific Environmental Clearance is required for redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue as total built up proposed is less than 20,000 sq metres.”

But this is only a fragment of the law. The Environment (Protection) Act Rules actually states that environmental clearance is required for a project with built up area of more than 150,000 sqm and less than 300,000 sqm OR covering an area of over 50 hectares.

The Central Vista Avenue project comprises a bit over 80 hectares. See pic below.

With contributions from Madhav Raman, LokPATH.

Next: Part Four The price of Central Vista’s legacy? It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about the law.

Also Read :
Bit by bit, trick by trick: How Central Vista became a reality
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