The redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi — the seat of the Government of India — challenged variously, was finally cleared by the Supreme Court of India and all objections were dismissed.
However, the naysayers wanted to have one more try. So, they went to the Delhi High Court on the plea that since the COVID-19 pandemic is raging, the works be stopped and the money allocated for it be diverted towards something else.
The Delhi High Court heard the objections and summarily dismissed the perennial negativists. The Court rightly realised the spurious nature of the plea, dismissed it outright and even called Central Vista a ‘project of national importance’.
Now that the legal route has been closed, the toolkit-inspired and committed pessimists have taken to the media to carry forward their dubious propaganda. Their language is vituperative, their facts are jumbled, their arguments are laconic, and their narrative is primarily fake.
It is important thus, to set the facts straight lest those who lost in the court of law have an unchallenged space in the court of public opinion.
Need for a revamped Central Vista
The present Central Vista in New Delhi was designed, during the British colonial period, by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. Their inspiration — the Washington’s Capitol Complex and Paris’ Champs Elysees — was not anything that remotely represented India’s cultural or civilizational moorings.
After India’s Independence in 1947, some ugly and haphazard construction were added to the inherited structures to house the many central ministries and departments. These buildings represent the worst of the socialist phase of India.
There was zero design or aesthetics sense in any of the new buildings constructed. What the present Central Vista presents — a mishmash of the British colonial past and the socialist stagnation — is actually a visual confirmation of a country which was a shortage economy and had to make do with makeshift buildings housing India’s most important ministries.
India, which has some of the best architecture in the world, right from the ancient era to the medieval period — from the grand Temple architecture in the South to Ajanta and Ellora Caves in the West and from the Sun Temple in the East to the wondrous Taj Mahal in the North — was till now presenting a sorry picture in its showpiece seat of people’s power.
But the design insufficiency is not the only or even the main reason. All the buildings in the Central Vista area are more than 50-60 years old and are near the end of their serviceable lives. North and South Blocks, the two centrepieces, are almost 100 years old.
As India’s needs have grown, in tune with its population growth and the growth of the economy, there is a shortage of sufficient office spaces to cater to all the present requirement. Ministries and departments, scattered as they are, function in silos, and make the public interface extremely difficult.
In absence of a building in tune with current requirements, the recurring costs of modernisation and refurbishing is a yearly burden on the government’s exchequer. Multiple Ministries and Departments of the Central Government need to rent offices outside the Central Vista due to lack of space. This means a significantly high and recurring annual expense of around $150 million.
Around 7,000 employees from Defence services, sit in hutments which were temporary structures meant as stables and barracks created during World War II.
As such, it is more than evident, that a reboot of the area was needed. Many committees have suggested it in the past and even the former Speaker of Lok Sabha under Dr. Manmohan Singh government strongly pleaded for it. It was finally the Prime Minister Modi government that took the plunge in consonance with the timing of India’s 75th year of Independence.
Objectives of new Central Vista plan
The objectives of Central Vista Development Master Plan are multifold — Upgrading Parliament’s space is one primary objective. New facilities need to be created to meet the demands of representation that will be required post 2026, when delimitation, frozen since 1971, opens up and the number of elected MPs go up in proportion to India’s population.
Consolidating, rationalising and synergising government functioning, so that it is not scattered as it is now but works in synthesis and unison, is one other primary objective of the plan.
Another important objective is to provide adequate and permanent facilities for the Vice President and the Prime Minister of India. Incidentally, India is the only major democracy in the world which does not have an institutionalised residential-cum-office-space for the head of the government — the Prime Minister of India. Take the case of US — The White House — or that of Britain — 10 Downing Street, and similarly other democracies.
This exceptional situation exists because in India, the institutional buildings such as Teen Murti Bhavan or 1, Safdarjung Lane or 10 Janpath — residences of former Prime Ministers — were all either converted into private memorials or continued to be occupied by family of the former Prime Minister.
The new Central Vista plan will create an institutional, fully functional and permanent place for the Vice President and Prime Minister of India.
The detailed plan
As on date, two projects — the New Parliament Building and Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment are in progress. The new Parliament building will enable the Winter Session of 2022 to be held in the new Parliament building to celebrate 75 years of India’s independence.
Old and New Parliament buildings will be harmonised so that the two buildings work in conjunction as ‘Legislative Enclave’. The new Parliament building will house larger Lok Sabha — directly elected house — and Rajya Sabha — house of states — Halls.
Total new capacity will be 888 seats and 384 seats respectively. The New Lok Sabha Hall will also have additional capacity, up to 1272 seats, to host joint sessions of the Parliament.
The new Parliament building’s architecture and aesthetics will be a happy confluence of present Parliament building, and the classical, folk and tribal arts and crafts of India.
The Central Vista Avenue, used for such national occasions as the Republic Day parade and which is a tourist hot spot, is also being refurbished, its infrastructure upgraded, and new social amenities added to better cater to the people.
About 5.64 acres of land will be added in green area and an additional 2 hectares of green public spaces will be accessible to all citizens. North and South Block will be converted into the new National Museum.
A Common Central Secretariat (CCS) — comprising 10 buildings — will be constructed so that seamless work can happen between ministries and their present scattered and silo style working is forever ended.
Criticism related to cost and timing
First about the cost. Central Vista’s total project cost is estimated to be $2.8 billion. This will be spent over several years and not in just one year alone, as some of the naysayers try and project. As of now, only projects worth about $200 million have been started.
In contrast, Government of India’s health and wellness budget in FY 2021-22 is an all-time record of over $29 billion. This is about 10 times more than the overall cost of the whole Central Vista project and that too for just one year.
Take another metric. Just vaccination allocation for current year, which is almost $5 billion, is almost double the budget of Central Vista project and that too which is spread across several years. So, the faulty comparison between priorities, that the negativists try and spread, is entirely misplaced.
The cascading effects of infrastructure construction at such large scale are manifold. Just the two ongoing projects have provided direct livelihood opportunities to more than 10,000 skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers on site and off site.
Many of these are only employable in the construction sector. Should their livelihood, already severely impacted by the pandemic, be completely sabotaged?
Substantial indirect employment has also been created in the manufacturing and transportation sectors — such as transporters of cement, steel and other building materials.
Finally, the Central Vista Development Master Plan, when completed, will be a place of Indians, for Indians and built by Indians. 75 years of Independence, with India’s population increasing by almost 5 times in the interim, and India’s economic, strategic and global profile rising, it is only fitting that India gives to itself a fitting seat of people’s power.
The aspirational New India is no longer satisfied with playing second fiddle or compromising on second best. The plans put in motion today must serve the needs of a young India for the next few decades.
The New Central Vista will be just one prominent landmark in that journey.