The redevelopment plan of the Central Vista area has gripped public attention for several reasons. Professionals and concerned citizens have been publicly voicing their apprehensions about the social, cultural, ecological and financial impact of a project in the heart of New Delhi. The continuing contradictions of the government and its representatives only reinforce the fact that this is a project planned in haste without any thought to the far-reaching consequences of such a major change to the built environment in a sensitive area.
Concentrating all Central Government offices including the Ministries, with a projected population of 70,000 in such a small area would by itself lead to severe congestion both during and after construction. This would also lead to vast swathes of open spaces being denied to the public. Traffic alone would create a permanent environmental emergency in an already fragile environment.
It is indeed a travesty of sorts that a government elected on a slogan of maximum governance and minimum government is concentrating such huge government infrastructure in the centre of the Capital. The Central Vista area is at present subject to strict control which befits its status as a Grade 1 Heritage precinct. To plan a project of this scale and magnitude without due deliberation is extremely shortsighted.
Cities the world over are seeking to decongest their city centres; hence this movement in the opposite direction is devoid of logic under any tenet of urban planning. The notice inviting bids for the tender for redevelopment was vague. In the past, even relatively small plots in the Central Vista area have had detailed design briefs. The IGNCA design was a result of an international competition conducted under the aegis of UIA (International Union of Architects).
Vanijya Bhavan and the War Memorial had extremely detailed design briefs. Why this was not followed in this scheme which is much larger in scope and magnitude is anyone’s guess. The right way forward would have been a Multi-stage Design Competition with a Comprehensive Project brief. The appointment process of the consultant firm for the Redevelopment of Central Vista has been controversial with the evaluation of the tender being based on a Quality and Cost Based System (QCBS).
The quality component of the bid was assessed based only on a basic conceptual design scheme but the weightage given to it was 80 per cent. The financial component of the evaluation was only 20 per cent. The conceptual nature of the schemes did not merit the high turnover requirement of Rs 20 crore specified in the bid document. Technical bids were assessed in total secrecy. The head of the evaluation committee was reportedly the Director SPA Delhi, an institution which is under the Ministry of HRD.
He is also the Chairperson of Delhi Urban Arts Commission which has the mandate of approving building proposals for aesthetic merit. Though the project details were shrouded in secrecy, videos of the project proposals have repeatedly made their way to social media. There has also been a publicity overdrive by the consultant firm showcasing images of selected drawings as background graphics in curated interviews and presentations.
It is droll that the firm which refused to sign on a proposal signed by all architects at the pre-bid meeting for the CPWD tender for an open design competition is now claiming that it has a won a ‘design competition’ whereas it has actually been awarded a work order based on a winning bid in a tender. Interviews, where the Principal of the Consultant firm with the winning bid is being lauded as the “Emperor of New Delhi”, repeatedly serve to reinforce the carte blanche given to alter the cultural landscape of the city.
With DDA notifying the change of land use drastically reducing the open spaces based on the proposal of the consultant, this is a blatant case of abdication of the basic tenets of city planning parameters as enunciated in the Master Plan Document 2021 and beyond. Equally troublesome is the fact that all the services of Master Architectural and Engineering Services have been contracted to the same consultant firm.
This would result in the lack of systemic measures of institutional checks and balances. Despite disclaimers on tree-cutting it is obvious that a large number of existing trees in the area would be cut down for construction and cause immense damage to the environment. The construction material and labour movement to and from the construction sites is an environmental nightmare soon to be unleashed in the heart of the city.
The idea of transporting construction workers through an overloaded metro system and sprinkling water to mitigate dust are fanciful enough not to be given credence. There have been some statements made about the seismic instability of buildings. Parliament House, North Block, South Block and Rashtrapati Bhavan all have the status of Grade-1 heritage buildings. Hence if North and South Blocks are being declared unsafe, seismically or otherwise, Rashtrapati Bhavan must be re-planned accordingly. Seismic studies, if conducted, should be shared and evaluated by experts.
There have been claims that structural analysis of the existing Parliament building was not possible much to the amusement of conservationists actively involved in protecting heritage buildings. The statement by the consultant firm that no drawings of Parliament House are available is surprising since all the drawings of this part of Delhi are available with the RIBA and have been obtained for other buildings in the area.
In case availability of the drawings was an issue, measured drawings could have been made, a standard protocol in the conservation of heritage structures. Architectural conservation of buildings uses the approach of Adaptive Reuse to accommodate changed requirements. Converting structures which are part of the living heritage of this country into museums would mothball these buildings. In the case of Parliament House, the contours of adaptive reusage have also been spelled out by many senior parliamentarians like Dr Karan Singh.
Dr Singh has recommended converting the Central Hall into the Lok Sabha Hall. He also suggests that the Rajya Sabha move into the existing Lok Sabha. This could then lead to the existing Rajya Sabha Hall becoming a meeting lounge. Parliament House is living heritage and shifting into a new building would destroy this temple of Indian Democracy. As a response to public objections, a roadshow has been launched with the selected firm going on a publicity overdrive.
However, select meetings and interviews with pliant interviewers using background graphics of drawings cannot take the place of transparent public consultations. What is needed is more transparency and public consultation for the contours of the project with plans and other detailed technical data put out in public domain in the form of an exhibition to be reviewed by civil society, citizens and professionals alike.
(The writer is an architect from SPA Delhi and a veteran officer of the Corps of Engineers. He is an Executive member of the Indian Institute of Architects, Northern Chapter and has been a Visiting Professor at SPA Delhi and Amity University)