Modi’s Central Vista revamp risks violating UNESCO declaration

Mandated to protect world heritage sites after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan, UNESCO has been watching plans to destroy Delhi’s heritage zone

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Ashis Ray

Lawyers will have a field day arguing this either way. One point of view would be that provisions in a 2003 declaration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) – to which India as a member state is a signatory – are potential hazards for the Narendra Modi government’s controversial Rs 20,000 crore revamp of New Delhi’s legacy-rich central vista.

UNESCO is mandated to “promote cultural heritage” worldwide. Following the abominable destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Paris-headquartered international body at its 32nd session resolved that any “intentional destruction of cultural heritage”, which was defined as “an act intended to destroy in whole or in part cultural heritage” would be met by punitive measures. UNESCO's defintion of cultural heritage is not restricted to just architecture or the exterior of an edifice.

Clause VI of the Declaration states: “A State that intentionally destroys or intentionally fails to take appropriate measures to prohibit, prevent, stop, and punish any intentional destruction of cultural heritage of great importance for humanity, whether or not it is inscribed on a list maintained by UNESCO or another international organisation, bears the responsibility for such destruction, to the extent provided for by international law.” In other words, if UNESCO considers the revamp of the Indian capital’s central vista as even a partial destruction of heritage, it could conceivably serve legal notice on India or even prosecute it in a court of justice.

Furthermore, clause VII outlines, States should “provide effective criminal sanctions against those persons who commit, or order to be committed, acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage”. This again is regardless of a site being bestowed heritage status by UNESCO. In effect, a prime mover or those executing the project would come under a scanner.

The Supreme Court has not considered the matter to be urgent enough to hear petitions opposing Modi’s plans. Indeed, how India’s apex court will interpret the venture is a matter for conjecture. Will it view it as a destruction of heritage or a legitimate distancing from a colonial past?

“Master Plan Delhi 2021” designates the “specific heritage complex within Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ)” as a “Heritage Zone”. It lists among others the Archaeological Survey of India as being “concerned with the protection of Delhi’s built heritage”.

In January 2014, the Manmohan Singh government applied to UNESCO to grant “Delhi’s Imperial Capital Cities” (which includes LBZ) World Heritage Site status. A year later, prior to the organisation preparing documentation for consideration at its 39th session in Bonn, the nomination was withdrawn by the Modi regime without apparently assigning any reason.

When questioned about the matter in the Rajya Sabha in August 2015, the union culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, misled the house by saying the centre had only asked UNESCO to “postpone the nomination”. The official record of the “Nominations to the World Heritage List” retained by UNESCO categorically states the nomination was “withdrawn at the request of the State Party (India)”.

Clearly, had the application been approved or was in the process of this happening, a project to introduce significant changes to heritage properties, such as the estate of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament House, North Block and South Block, would have contradicted India's position and violated UNESCO’s guidelines.

In other words, Modi was probably advised that his clandestine design may not fructify if India’s representation to UNESCO was accepted or remained on the table. To obtain or seek heritage status and concurrently tamper with the site would have constituted a brazen breach of India’s sovereign commitment, notwithstanding demolition of the listed buildings not being on the anvil.

Asked to spell out what action UNESCO could take, a spokesperson for the body said it “cannot answer questions about hypothetical situations”. It may be hypothetical at present, but arguably no longer so after implementation. Is UNESCO's mandate prevention or cure?

Modernisation of interiors of listed buildings without any structural changes is generally permissible. But even this needs to pass through rigid protocols before it is accepted. Besides, change of use of historic structures has similarly got to be justified.

Reportedly, details of Modi’s revamp plan has not been shared sufficiently with the public; yet there’s been a deluge of objections. A G Krishna Menon, an architect, planner and conservationist who in 2004 was party to drafting the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Charter for the Conservation of Unprotected Architectural Heritage and Sites in India, said he learnt, “A substantial part of the open area between the Mughal Gardens (of Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the Ridge would be converted into a biosphere park”. He added this would contravene INTACH’s Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, which had, according to him, been “legally approved”.

On converting North Block and South Block into archives and museums, he disclosed it has been mentioned that both are “unsafe according to current seismic codes”. He contended: “There is also no explanation for how these buildings would be ‘safe’ to be converted into museums open to hundreds of visitors. The historic and iconic value of these buildings as the seat of important ministries of the government seems to have been completely discounted.”

As for Parliament House – to be consigned as another museum - it is claimed it would not accommodate an additional number of MPs in future, which electoral reforms envisage. “Studies done by some architects show that this is not true,” stated Krishna Menon.

In the Palace of Westminster, the chambers for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are highly inadequate to seat all members if there’s a full attendance, but it is being renovated at a multi-billion pound expenditure to preserve its historic function rather than be replaced.

The magnificence of New Delhi’s central vista is a manifestation of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s architectural vision. London-based Martin Lutyens, a great-nephew of Edwin and co-chairman of The Lutyens Trust, recently wrote in an article the Trust “feels, like many conservation bodies, architects and urban designers in India, that the timescale for implementing these changes is too short and the process has lacked both proper public consultation and study of the environmental impact.” This is not an unreasonable stance.

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