This is the final part of a multi-part series on Central Vista. Read , and .
Any understanding of the Central Vista project has to start and end with the searing need of the Hindu right to create a story of its own in independent India. Denied the opportunity for 70 years by an established Nehruvian state, its feverish haste to establish a symbolism and narrative while it has the power of 303 seats has a certain logic to it.
This helps to grasp why Central Vista has nothing to do with architecture, urban planning, or the citizen/nation whose name it is in. Or why its self-labelling of ‘world class’ has nothing to do with sustainability or democracy – those actual attestations of world class.
Its prime rationale is to embody the ideological ‘New India’ that wipes out memories of the old – the new India that Padma Shri Kangana Ranaut describes as having “real” independence.
Less logical is why, in pursuit of this ideological goal, the public, the law, and even the global image this regime zealously nurtures, have all been consciously inflicted deep damage.
Citizens have witnessed the project’s manic pace, its predetermined design/tender winner, its barge past lawful sanctions and public consensus, and its unembarrassed Public Use land grab. There have been no attempts to conceal these abrasive moves to overrule, dismiss, manipulate or sideline the law. The project is indifferently and openly littered with such examples.
The belief might be that the manifestation of Central Vista’s ‘world-class’ appearance, dominating a destroyed landscape of Nehruvian pre-eminence, will render all illegalities irrelevant. (See and .)
But given Central Vista’s immense and uncaring collateral damage, the attempt to label itself ‘world class’ will not pass scrutiny either.
This begs the question why this project nurtured with all the power the executive possesses, unlimited resources and an entire bureaucracy at its command should fall short of the single benchmark it set out to achieve?
Throttling a state’s primary duty to its citizens to attain ‘legacy’
In the mistaken belief that the law would become a weapon used by liberals to obstruct the Prime Minister’s “dream project”, the regime threw out the crucial elements that could help it achieve the real prestige and new beginnings it so desperately craves.
It chose fealty from obedient satraps over institutional inputs, secrecy over public access and fait accompli over urban regulatory process. By setting aside respect for this daily democratic governance, it shut out all the inputs that could actually make it a world class project.
All of these were perceived as a threat.
Their elimination triggered the project’s dive into mediocrity by paving the way for extreme and destructivist ideas. These were allowed to freely flow, uncontrolled by the normal due process.
A clearer picture of this cause-effect comes from understanding how the regime first put the project together.
A game changing move it made at the start, was driven not by excellence but by its paranoia of potential resistance to the smashing of the Nehruvian citadel. It decided to avoid all discussion and put all its eggs in a single basket – long-time collaborator Bimal Patel.
On the surface, this may have ticked all the boxes. Respected professional with Ivy League degrees? Ultra-loyalist with trusted delivery record? Part of an Ahmedabad cohort with secure cultural fit? Check, check and check.
The implicit trust with this comforting picture was so great, that the regime made the fatal mistake of gifting Patel a choice far and beyond its mandate as a government whose primary duty should have been towards its citizens.
How did this happen?
The fatal mistake
Most large state projects have three key stages:
Stage One - the brief: The client (here, the state) first sets down their requirements, parameters and limits. After a thorough exercise of due diligence, they define clear limits so there is clarity on the goals of the project. What needs to be built? Where should it be built? What can be let go of? What stays?
Once this exercise is done, the client asks designers for creative, speculative ideas within these red lines.
Stage Two - the design competition: The designers challenge the brief experimenting and innovating, using critical thinking to go as far as they can without overstepping the limits.
Thirty years ago, architect IM Pei’s design for the historic Louvre Museum renovation left the 300 year old heritage building intact but added space with a vast underground chamber flooded with light from a (then) radically modern glass pyramid roof. (See pics below.)
IM Pei's design for the historic Louvre Museum renovation.
Spectacularly lit up at night.
Inside the pyramid, the vast entrance lobby with underground connections to the larger museum.
Once the design is chosen, however innovative, it is subjected again to rigorous scrutiny to ensure compliance with laws and the parameters of the brief. Innovation does not imply the indulgence of illegality.
Stage Three - the tender: The contractor physically constructs a vetted and fixed design after client and designer reach a final understanding.
Preparing a baseline
A state preps for Stage One by asking its own advisors and domain experts across sectors like heritage and environmental law, engineering, population studies, architecture and urban planning to set the broad contours of the project. These government departments and expert bodies bring in multi-expertise data that is then diligently built into a project baseline.
For Central Vista as a whole, for example, this baseline could include the fixed understanding that the project had to conform to the limits posed by its presence in a heritage zone.
For the Parliament, the baseline could include assessing the structural strength of the existing building and examining questions after, like: Does its strength justify a new building or can an extensive renovation do? How many approximate seats should we increase if the population will start declining in 15 years? If a new building is required, how can we protect the heritage and ecology around it?
“This is a stage that should be done proudly, loudly and diligently,” says architect Madhav Raman from LokPATH. “All designers in the competition should have access to this baseline. This is how it’s done even by the government itself! The design for the recent War Memorial explicitly laid down the parameter for example that no constructed structure should be more than five feet higher than the road. All the shortlisted entries preserved the trees. Every design submitted was created according to this baseline – else it would be disqualified.”
What happened with Central Vista?
It had no Stage One. No brief was given. No limits were prescribed. No baseline was created.
In fact, the so-called design ‘competition’ was actually a full scale tendering exercise. The all-in-one document called for bids for consultancy services for “comprehensive architectural and engineering planning”. (See pic.) The winner would take it all.
But in an extraordinary act, this open-ended omnibus tender document gave away all powers to make the decisions of Stage One to the winner, i.e. they would determine the baseline – not the state!
It is here that the state abandoned its primary duty towards the citizen that it would diligently safeguard this site and lay down strict red lines to protect its sanctity.
“Not a shred of responsibility that this is a precious asset that will be handed down intergenerationally,” says Raman. “Stage One where they should have been most nuanced, most diligent about parameters – they left everything open to complete speculation by the master ‘winner’ who treated this heritage space the way you would an industrial wasteland! Demolish anything, build anywhere...”
So, while the state did hire a qualified professional based on a so-called competitive ‘win’ – it handed over all powers to him without setting any limits.
Thus Patel made the decisions that
a) The project scale would be four times the existing space
b) Existing laws on heritage, environment or FAR would not apply to it
c) The best available land i.e. public/recreational land would be used for it.
He did this because which designer wouldn’t grab the chance – and because no one told him he couldn’t!
What did this mean? Raman puts this in perspective.
“Bimal Patel talks about tight timelines, cost benefits of preserving or demolishing buildings, decisions on which heritage was worth keeping and which was not – as if these are government decisions,” he says.
“But the idea of demolishing four lakh sqm or making a new Parliament were not the government’s ideas – these are his ideas! The omnibus tender/design competition document gives free rein to the winner that they choose whether the original should be preserved or a new one made”. (See pic below.)
It was therefore Patel who measured and studied the existing Parliament (a job that should have been done by the state) and quickly decided unilaterally and subjectively (what should have been decided by the state based on advice given by its own domain experts and actual quantitative studies) that a new building bearing his name and design would be a better choice.
None of his justifications (seismic, structural, etc) have verifiable, quantitative studies backing them. (Patel has often dismissed studies and repeatedly proclaims that Google Earth is enough to make his decisions.)
“So, we quickly came to the conclusion that our early idea that it (Parliament) is a much valued facility and symbol of India’s vibrant democracy – ,” he recalled in a recent closed door meeting. “Verification of our initial assumption was very quick to come to.”
But this decision involved a huge conflict of interest. There is no way Patel’s impeccable professional qualifications could play any role in giving correct advice to the government once he was placed by them in a position of potentially explosive personal gain.
Making a national Parliament ensures the kind of personal glory that will last forever in the history books and sky-rocketing personal and financial elevation. Patel unhesitatingly ran with this option.
This casts a highly suspect colour on every single one of his other allegedly ‘professional’ choices.
These included the choices to demolish 18 structurally sound buildings of four lakh sqm, knock down highly precious cultural institutions, change the shared state-public iconography of the Vista and remove the institutions from the Vista altogether, takeover 100 acres of public lands, change land use unhesitatingly, cut down 6,000 trees, dump the load of expressway-style traffic on a fragile heritage zone, bypass local body sanction, get a choose-your-own FAR pass, pave over Rajpath lawns, disrupt the natural riverwater flow – all this in a Grade One Heritage Zone.
If a citizen looks at this list, there is practically nothing the state has not done to give Patel absolute power over institutions, municipal bodies, and urban law to achieve his personal ambitions.
Or looking at it differently, practically nothing it has done to fulfil its duty of upholding these institutions, municipal bodies and urban law.
This self-indulgent and destructivist vision is the key to the project’s inability to be world class.
Anti intellectualism as a state policy or ‘don’t trust the professional’
The same fear that prompted the regime to give carte blanche to Patel, prevented any expert advice from moderating the wrecking ball he wielded.
Ideologically boxed in, unwilling to listen to its own domain experts, the regime resolutely cracked down on checks and balances that institutions would have provided. (See and .)
At the root of this institutional failure is the distrust of the professional who might come in the way of ideological ‘dreams’. This has been made clear in the past with pronouncements of “Hard work over Harvard” etc but never has it been so clearly demonstrated.
‘New India’ may be packaged with the jargon of modernity but actual modernity via professionals doing their job has been purposefully kept out. At the feudal core of the ‘New India’ vision, mid-level bureaucrats rubber-stamp institutional decisions by majority, and trump legality to push through unlawful policy decisions.
This is causing actual, grievous damage on the ground.
The costs of anti-expertise
If the urban arts body can issue approvals without local body sanction which it is bound to do, if the heritage committee can waive the heritage rules that make up its very charter, if an environmental body can approve an openly illegal FAR project – their stamps are like Monopoly money.
While the bruising roughness with which institutions have been treated could work for an ideological objective, it does not communicate a professional standard or quality to the outside world anymore. As pawns of the state, institutional credibility is the first casualty.
Central Vista’s most powerful message is thus loud and clear. Institutions don’t matter and lawful process has no role in ‘New India’.
Projects now suffer from a talent deficit. They emerge not with the latest global ideas – but a home-made falooda of unqualified players ramming through incoherent decisions on environmental, heritage, traffic, water etc.
“The people in power have to tap several domain expertises like heritage, pollution, engineering, architecture, culture, traffic etc to wrestle with complex issues and figure out how to make them work together rather than one single farmaan originating from a Mughal-like authority,” says Kavas Kapadia, former dean of the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi.
“You need to bring a judicious approach to building a city,” he adds. “If you deny logic, you deny expertise – the city starts unravelling!”
This incoherence creates systemic drags in governance that take it towards mediocrity. Everything is now possible.
Thus a ‘deemed forest’ of 2,000 trees whose cutting would earlier evoke shock and moral horror even within cynical government departments, is now shrugged off as an accepted ‘cost of development’. That this development is random, senseless or backward is acceptable since the experts who would say otherwise, have been removed.
Because the decision-making has been upside down in this project, the plan comes first and the studies later. This lack of prep before building imposes an irrational ‘solution’ post-facto.
This is how shocking decisions have been made to widen several roads in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi to resulting from the new buildings. (See pics below.)
Traffic studies before the project would have brought it down to a manageable, sustainable level to protect Delhi’s finest heritage. One (traffic) can be replaced or compromised with. The other (heritage) cannot. Instead, the bull-in-a-china-shop solution advocates smashing through this delicate heritage with elevated roads, flyovers on roundabouts and widened eight-lane corridors on Delhi’s finest tree lined avenues that have existed for near a century.
Source: Hindustan Times.
“This is like using the platform of the Taj Mahal for a metro station in the name of providing ‘world class’ access to the site!” says Kapadia.
Yet this crudeness is absolutely normalised and passed undebated by vetted committees. (See pic below.)
‘New India’ thus cannot be a place where innovation or excellence thrives. It has a fixed understanding of its desires and will not allow actual knowledge to get in its way. The best laws will be meaningless if the intent of the state itself is so forcefully against them.
Turning around to a win-win situation
There are, however, still ways to change this senseless trajectory that makes everyone a loser, from citizen to government.
If the state is open to dialogue, there are possibilities for win-win solutions that modernise as well as conserve. None of them involve anything revolutionary besides adherence to existing law.
The first step could be returning public/semi-public/recreational land to its original owner – the public. This would mean first of all that the area on the Vista east of Janpath remains with the public as it has been since the ‘60s.
This means restoring the junction of Janpath and Rajpath to its original stature as the axis where government and public functions pleasingly intersect, as in the best cities of the world and as a citizen’s space that the state is dutybound to safeguard and protect.
It also means restoring the functional sanctity of the cultural institutions that define this space – the National Museum, the IGNCA and the National Archives. Any debate on their modernisation/expansion can take place after.
This means recreational land should be restored for its original use for the public i.e. museums, parks, recreational centres to make the area truly representative of a democracy.
Finally it means the area west of Janpath (barring the junction and the two plots on Janpath), traditionally the government’s preserve, could easily suffice for a new set of modern, state of the art Secretariat buildings.
55,000 people currently occupy the area at a very comfortable 11 sqm per person. This means there is currently enough space for them and the thousands of trees and reasonable traffic to happily coexist.
The new secretariat will house the same number of employees as before.
“If you have the same number of people, why can’t you modernise with the same equation in the same area? Why do you have to build four times the space, cut thousands of trees, demolish the museums and destroy the roads?” asks Kapadia. “All that is needed is a modesty of approach and a thoughtful, respectful attitude to Lutyens’ Delhi as a whole – one of the world’s most beautiful urban spaces!”
The second step would be restoring a basic respect for the law.
This requires strict adherence to an FAR of 200, the maximum allowed in Central Vista’s Zone D. It means sticking to the heights of buildings, adherence to environmental law and heritage law, preserving the trees, the heritage plotlines and skylines. It means submitting to local body sanction like every ordinary citizen in the city.
How will it be judged? The legacy factor
If the government decides to go ahead as planned, the price will be paid in one key area.
Legacy. The very objective of Central Vista
Will it be judged as a heroic symbol of the new directions of a ‘mighty’ and resurgent India?
Or will architectural and environmental jaws drop worldwide at this horrifying spectacle of state sponsored destruction of incredible scale (four lakh sqm of structurally sound buildings demolished and thousands of trees chopped down to erect office buildings in one of the world’s most elegant public areas?
By going radically against a global understanding of what world class or even good architecture should be, Central Vista stands out of its time. If so, it cannot expect to be a shining example of a new vision. A legacy cannot be established if it travels backward to ideas that have been abandoned by the rest of the world.
Equally, if an idea’s time has come – i.e. climate change, sustainability, non-destruction, democratic access – no amount of marketing and packaging can sell Central Vista as ‘world class’ to an unbelieving world of sophisticated experts and professionals. Urban planning has moved far ahead of glory architecture that wrecks the environment around to erect trophy edifices.
As well, no project cannot remain a secret in an era of Google Earth. It will be audited in a future in which nothing can be hidden, with soil analysis, water movements, pollution, building scans etc.
Its legacy will be assessed not just in the light of its aesthetics or ideological aspirations but also as one built on the crudity of destruction and willful institutional subjugation. Neither can its state of the art systems save it from judgement of the undemocratic ideas that it stands for – a people unfriendly ode to ideology, out of touch with the citizens it claims to represent. Its much vaunted ‘modernity’ remains only an elaborate cover, based as it is, on a paradox that can never allow the real thing.
This is the paradox of fixed beliefs of an ideological world, working in a fluid, open, digital universe of information where ideologies are busted every minute. The exclusive ideas of seventy-somethings that forbid debate and exclude expertise, cannot be the imposed future for twenty-somethings. This is a fact of life.
This is what will determine Central Vista’s legacy.
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