The grand redevelopment plan of the Parliament building, Central Secretariat and Central Vista in New Delhi envisaged by the government may change the entire face of Lutyens’ Delhi, or indeed India as we know it, if the CPWD’s notice inviting bids for a consultant is anything to go by. A makeover was long in the offing, but matters seem to have been brought to a head if the statements by various government functionaries are given credence. The unseemly rush is evident in the hastily culled project brief which has no layout plan or concept apart from the statement that the Master Plan should “represent the values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity and is rooted in the Indian Culture and Social milieu”.

Not even the basic Central Vista layout available on the CPWD website forms a part of the document issued, let alone a detailed layout plan. However, the disturbing part is the criteria laid out for the selection of the Consultant. This has been restricted to firms that have a financial turnover of Rs 20 crore. The firm also has to deposit earnest money of Rs 50 lakh in order to participate in the bid. This criteria for selection based on financial capabilities appears to be aimed at excluding most architectural firms in the country except for a chosen few.

This intention was evident in the pre-bid meeting for the tender chaired by the CPWD team. The objections of all the architectural firms were responded to cryptically by CPWD, stating that the objections had been noted and would be responded to in due course. They also stated that firms that found the conditions unsuitable were free not to bid for the project. Almost all the architectural firms at the pre-bid meeting were in favour of holding an open design competition in order to finalise the project as per the guidelines of the Council of Architecture, the statutory body of the Government of India formed under the Architects Act 1972.

This was not agreed to by the CPWD officials. Subsequently the earnest money has been reduced to Rs 20 lakh and an honorarium of Rs 5 lakh for valid bidders who submit their designs and panels has been issued apart from a postponement of the submission date by a week by means of an addendum and corrigendum to the bid documents. However, the suggestion of an open design competition among other suggestions as per COA guidelines has been ruled out by the CPWD. It is the norm internationally, and even in India, to award a prestigious project of this nature after an open design competition. In order to conduct this there must be a project advisory committee of eminent architectural professionals and an internationally renowned jury for selection of the best design.

This was also suggested at the pre-bid meeting. In fact, a two-stage competition would be the ideal way forward. The first stage would handle the macro picture and take up the urban design aspect of the area along with phasing and the second would deal with individual building designs. However, the manner in which the project is being dealt with without any consideration for the sensitive urban context is extremely slipshod. Two recent well-known international examples of open design competitions are the World Trade Centre and the redesign of the Notre Dame. In both cases, open design competitions were held and the selection was made by an international jury after extensive public consultations.

Even in the context of the current project, the Parliament Library building and Annexe were built after a design competition, albeit limited. The fundamental flaw in the entire process lies in the treatment of an architectural professional as a contractor. An architect, subject to a professional code of conduct under an act of Parliament (Architects Act, 1972), is being treated by all government departments as a supplier of goods and a contractor. One would shudder to think what would happen if the lowest bidder among other professionals like lawyers and doctors was asked to argue or operate in critical cases. Surely our built environment deserves a better deal.

This model is as flawed as it gets for architectural design projects since it lets professional management and other general firms bid on the basis of their financial clout and deep pockets and leaves out professional architects and architectural firms who would be better placed to handle the redevelopment of such a critical project. Needless to say, we would have to live with the consequences of this act till at least the next century. The bid lists out professionals who should be employed with the firm. Conservation architects, landscape architects and transport planners do not find a mention in this list. What is even more surprising is that the views of the apex bodies of architecture – the Council of Architecture and the Indian Institute of Architects, a national body of architects with over one lakh members, have not been taken into consideration.

The propensity to ride roughshod over institutional bodies have led to the demolition of prestigious buildings like the Hall of Nations and WHO building but it is this planned destruction of arguably the most loved urbanscape in the country which is truly frightening to comprehend. The lack of sensitivity to urban development issues is however symptomatic of the malaise affecting our built environment where piecemeal decisions like increase in FAR and change of land use are carried out to further vested interests without any thought or consideration for their implications. Professional and public consultations are anathema to the administration which goes about its work in a heavy-handed manner and is forced to deal with issues only when they reach a critical point of no return as most of the urban and environmental disasters in the country would testify.

The castigation of architects after a public disaster like fire or collapse of building is an all too familiar event. In any other country, a project of such nature would be subject to stringent guidelines and repeated public hearings for arriving at the best design solution keeping in view various criteria. However, the present project brief is as vague as it can be. CPWD officials when asked for clarification at the pre bid meeting stated that this would be up to the consultant and the proposal. It bears emphasis that for a project of this nature, a detailed design brief is a must. Proceeding without a detailed design brief will have disastrous consequences.

The public statements promising a new Parliament building before 2022 are ominous and are pointers to the unseemly haste with which the project is being rushed through. The desire to improve the Central Vista area is laudable but the methodology is deeply flawed. More than the professionals, the citizens of the country need to realise the potential manmade disaster waiting to happen in the planned redevelopment of the Central Vista area before it is too late.

(The writer is a visiting professor of architecture at SPA Delhi and Amity University, an executive member of the Indian Institute of Architects, Northern Chapter and a retired officer of the Corps of Engineers)