The Prime Minister’s ‘New Capital’ Dream and redevelopment of Lutyen’s Delhi can well lead to a nightmare

Who can object if a government, flush with funds, undertakes a ‘new capital’ project? But is the project, which may cost as much as ₹15,000 crore or more, worth it?

Illustration by: CSH Jhabvala
Illustration by: CSH Jhabvala

Ashlin Mathew

The three-kilometre-long stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate would be redeveloped because that, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri admitted, is the Prime Minister’s dream project. The PM, Puri revealed, had also set a deadline. A new Parliament should be ready to host the Monsoon session in 2022. And the entire project must be completed by 2024, leaving architects and town planners three to five years to finalise designs, get eligible contractors on board and complete the project.

Nobody of course knows how much the project is going to cost. There is no clarity on which buildings will be razed to the ground, and which will go for retrofitting and which ones will be turned into ‘museums’. Speculation is naturally rife and CPWD insiders believe the project could cost as much as ₹15,000 crore or more. As a point of interest, India’s Parliament House was built at a cost of ₹80 lakh and completed in 1927.

The urgency is such that bids were invited on September 2. Since then, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has already issued one addendum and four corrigendums! The earnest money was reduced from ₹50 lakh to ₹25 lakh. The last date for submitting bids was extended from September 23 to September 30. Curiously or not so curiously, bids were invited from architectural firms which had executed ‘single building projects’ of a state or central government worth at least Rs 250 crore.

The condition has given rise to suspicion that the eventual aim is to facilitate a foreign firm to bag the contract or to hand over the project to the erstwhile National Building Construction Corporation and now the NBCC, a public sector behemoth with an annual revenue of ₹10,000 crore.

The department also explained that contrary to the original stipulation that only consultants who had executed similar projects would be entertained, even builders with experience of building corporate office campuses, hospital and universities, etc. would also be considered for the ambitious project.

A pre-bid meeting was held on September 12 and 17 firms attended it including Design Forum International, which is constructing the Vanijya Bhavan on Akbar Road. For reasons not yet clear, government turned down the firm’s request for a joint venture in order to participate in the bidding process.

But do we really need a new Parliament House? Is there a need to reimagine the central vista around Rajpath and build a central secretariat and put 70,000 central government staff in the national capital in one campus?

By all accounts, neither CPWD nor DDA or any other agency has carried out a detailed survey to determine the need for such a project. No Heritage Assessment Study has been done and if any study was undertaken to explore strategic interventions and more innovative solutions, it remains a closely guarded secret.

The only plausible ground cited for the project so far is that once the government goes through the Delimitation exercise, the number of Members of Parliament would go up by several hundred and the present Parliament House will not be able to cope with the increased number. But sceptics and critics alike remain unimpressed. Both Westminster and the Capitol Hill Complex in London and Washington D.C., they point out, are much older and while they have been renovated and modernised, the heritage buildings retain their original façade.

The other explanation is that it is yet another vanity project. The Prime Minister, who is known to have a penchant for glitz, glamour, grandeur, and over-the-top construction, may well be dreaming of leaving his foorprint in the capital for the next few centuries, quipped a mid-level official.

Such a grand plan to redo heritage buildings of the national capital has upset conservationists and citizens alike.

“Indian Parliament is an iconic heritage building, which should not be tampered with. There was expansion of the Canadian Parliament but they didn’t touch the façade at all. Instead, they have gone several floors below under the same structure in Ottawa. Even the UK Parliament is a historic building and they have upgraded it,” says D. Gupta, who heads the Architecture Heritage division of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

“They have said that they are going to turn the North and South Block into a museum. Do we need these as museums? Make them as functional, government buildings. Do we need such spacious corridors there,” wonders Gupta.

AG Krishna Menon, who headed the Delhi chapter of INTACH, recalls “In 2013, the government had submitted a dossier to UNESCO in 2013 to nominate the Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone (LBZ) area to the list of World Heritage Cities. Since the nomination to the list of UNESCO World Heritage City list is still on the Tentative list, it could still be effectively pursued by the government.”

The second concern, Menon says, arises from the unprecedented haste in implementing the project. “The old saying, ‘make in haste and repent at leisure’ comes to mind. The massive scale and complexity of the projects envisaged, which are proposed to be completed before the next general elections, challenges the imagination.”

“Further, to leave its planning, design and implementation to the advice of the successful bidder is certainly compounding the cause for concern. The bid document states that the government wants to build a legacy for the next 150 years, but the timeline proposed to complete the project does not support this objective,” he adds.

A retired CPWD Chief Engineer, who worked on restoration projects including renovation of Parliament, however, believes there are good reasons for building a new Parliament House. The present building, he feels, was designed for far fewer MPs than we have now.

But he believes that the construction, if 2022 is indeed in the mind of the government, should have started 10 years ago. “We should not do things in a hurry,” he cautions and recalls the fiasco associated with the Commonwealth Games, Demonetisation and the GST.

Pointing out that both Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have been reluctant to move into the new, spacious buildings constructed for them, he wonders if more new buildings will meet a similar fate. “MEA does not want to leave South Block where they are housed. The new building has huge rooms for the minister and his staff, but they continue to sit at South lock. Isn’t it a waste,” underscores S. Srivastava.

Old timers recall past attempts to redevelop the Lutyen’s zone. In 2007, Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), then headed by late architect Charles Correa, wanted to tear down several of these bungalows and construct multi-storey apartment blocks and office buildings.

The Commission was accused of favouring interests of real estate developers and not heritage. AG Krishna Menon was quoted by The New York Times as saying that DUAC had kept in mind only the developmental potential of Rajpath and Lutyens Delhi and not its heritage value.

Correa had denied the charge. He had claimed that the Commission only wanted to impose order towards the north of Rajpath. There had to be some cohesion to urban form, he maintained.

The idea had again cropped up in 2012 when Meira Kumar was the speaker. “At that time, we submitted a proposal stating that if we wanted to maintain the symmetry of Lutyens Delhi, then as per the original plan, Edward Lutyens had planned another circular building on the other side of Vijay Chowk where at present you have the Barracks. At that time, I had suggested that we could follow that plan and to maintain the uniformity in the area, we could have built an external cicular facade with modern amenities inside. Both of these could be connected using an underground tunnel beneath Vijay Chowk ,” recalls Srivastava. The plan was eventually shelved.

The last time the buildings went through restoration and renovation was during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as PM in the 1980s. “We undertook decongestion of North and South Blocks. We built the CGO complex but people had refused to shift then. Several department heads of IB, CRPF, CBI continued sitting in their old offices for a long time,” Srivastava recalls.

The government needs to check if there is a real necessity and then economise it. “I don’t think there is a dire need to construct another Secretariat or an office building unless someone wants to leave an impression that they built this. This government seems to be flush with funds and wants to build a new capital, so all one can say is ‘go ahead’ and ‘ good luck’,” he adds wryly.

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Published: 20 Sep 2019, 8:00 AM