The Citizen's City
The Central Vista Redevelopment Project envisages revamping the 3-kilometre heritage stretch in the heart of the capital, severely altering how the public will engage with this space. The reform threatens to potentially convert the Central Vista into a gated complex of bureaucratic activity.
Words by Nikita Biswal
February 12, 2021
As lockdown restrictions were eased, cyclists and runners reclaimed the Central Vista in Delhi. Bookended by the iconic India Gate on one end and the Rashtrapati Bhawan on the other, the Central Vista has long stood as the model of a vibrant public space. Sprawling lawns that flank the stretch of Rajpath still see picnicking families, even though the competition for space is tighter. On an ordinary day, you could spot children in the green-brown water of the canals that run along the road. Crowds of tourists spill from India Gate as pedestrians enjoying ice-cream spread across the junction. Jamun sellers, who depend on the tree-lined avenue for business, dot the stretch. When the crowd clears, you can see the road that rises to Raisina Hill, where broadcasting vans queue to report parliamentary debate by the minute. These engagements bear witness to the Central Vista’s lived character as an integral part of the city’s everyday pulse. In September 2019, the Central government announced its plan to redevelop the Central Vista. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project envisages revamping the 3-kilometre heritage stretch in the heart of the capital, severely altering how the public will engage with this space. The reform threatens to potentially convert the Central Vista into a gated complex of bureaucratic activity. This grandiose development project aims to add a brand new Parliament and Central Secretariat, along with new residences for the Prime Minister and Vice President, are tactical attempts to redefine the very architecture of India’s capital.
In the days just before the lockdown began in March, the Central government changed the land use of over 50 acres of this public land, earlier marked as recreational district parks or public and semi-public facilities, for government use. The notification overlooked the thousand-plus objections and suggestions submitted by heritage conservationists, architects, urban planners, environmentalists and civic bodies. The two-day public hearing on the matter invited them to attend at a day’s notice, with two-and-a-half minutes each to raise concerns. Of the 1,292 objections, a thousand remain unaddressed. A petition moved by urban environment activist, Rajiv Suri states the project will deprive the citizens of ‘a vast chunk of highly treasured open and green space in the Central Vista area, available for public, semi-public, social and recreational activity, [and] stands against Article 21, Right to Life, the right to the enjoyment of a wholesome life.’
This process of city-making attributes no place to people. Inhibiting the people’s participation in planning the cities they inhabit alienates them from the public policy they must live. Insufficient disclosure deepens this exclusion. This top-down approach to city planning has little to do with the residents’ lived reality. For many, Central Vista represents an idea. National space acts as an extension of national politics. It is where political ideologies are actualised, fortified and eventually, challenged. Post Independence, the Nehruvian vision of modern India turned Delhi into the ground of experiment, insisting that the architecture, while steeped in history, be confidently future-looking. The emergence of slums, sit-ins that carve new spaces for protest, and larger ecosystems that develop around planned infrastructure reveal how this landscape is shaped by public intervention. These interactions give form to the ideals we collectively hold for the nation-state.
This is all the more significant in the case of Central Vista – a vital site of public protest. The idea of ‘taking to the streets’ reinforces that the street, and the city, belong to the people. Changing the make of this land without enough public discussion and debate, let alone independent evaluation, is another way of regulating the space for dissent. Marching down Vijay Chowk, towards Rashtrapati Bhawan, has evolved into a physical representation of confronting the State. This is where candlelight marches have been held in response to the most heinous crimes the country has seen. Minorities have mobilised themselves to, quite literally, occupy the centre of the nation’s attention. In 1988, nearly five lakh farmers from western UP laid siege on the Boat Club lawns near Rajpath, bringing the whole city to a standstill. Their demands were eventually met, but the official site of protest was moved out of sight, to Jantar Mantar. This ‘sanitisation’ of the Central Vista sharpens the disconnect between the citizens and their government.
The imagination of cities in independent India has continued the colonial approach to urban planning. The Central Vista was designed to edify the imperial position in India by building a new capital that projected the authority of the Raj. British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker gave the precinct its theme: perfectly manicured gardens, dwarfing gates, wide sandstone arches, and colossal domes symbolised the seat of colonial power. Accordingly, its buildings were set at a distance from its peopled roads. The wide boulevards were designed after Haussmann’s Paris to make it difficult for citizens to set roadblocks and allow for the swift deployment of forces. Although their re-appropriation since Independence has given the Vista a markedly post-colonial identity, the colonial imperative to design space as a means of disciplining civilians is kept alive through these structures. This practice exemplifies ‘development’ as an arrangement of built structures such as large-scale energy projects, industrial corridors, bridges, expressways and statues. These structures systematically push citizens away from the historical, political and geographic centres of the city. Take the ongoing double-tracking of the Hospet-Tinaighat-Vasco railway line between Karnataka and Goa, which would damage vast stretches of protected wildlife sanctuaries and densely populated neighbourhoods along the track. The bid for New India has seen massive investment in such infrastructural projects. A swooping Rs. 103 lakh crore has been allocated under the National Infrastructure Pipeline in the 2020 Union Budget. In comparison, a sum of Rs. 69,000 crore has been allocated for health. With an estimated cost of Rs. 20,000 crore, the Central Vista Project reveals the government’s gestural priorities in the midst of a pandemic that has left the economy pressurised – India’s GDP entered the negative zone in 2020-21, contracting by a record 23.9% between April-June. The crisis has pushed Indian citizens deeper into the clutches of unemployment, poverty and hunger, a reality that is much less visible in the opulence projected by central urban spaces.
If the government’s past policies have taught us anything, commemoration is key. On 17 September 2019, the Prime Minister’s sixty-ninth birthday, he “gifted” the nation the Sardar Sarovar Dam that submerged the lives and livelihoods of the thousands of inhabitants of the Narmada valley who protested its construction for over thirty years. ‘The Government is bent upon destroying the whole Narmada. Is this the way a country develops?’ Shantaben Yadav from Pipri village in Madhya Pradesh, which was submerged in the river’s rising waters, asked in an interview. The inauguration came as part of a calculated politics to embroider the Modi-led government into the history of India’s nation-building project for posterity, much like his infamous blue pinstripe suit which was embroidered with his own name in golden thread. These monuments incarnate the BJP’s rule in power – extravagant, authoritarian and built-in with near-complete disregard of the republic and its ethos. The Central Vista Project is a concrete demonstration of a change in regime. Scheduled to be completed just in time for the next general elections in 2024, the reconstructed avenue would serve as a concrete symbol of the BJP’s achievements during their ten-year run. Such fundamental reforms irrevocably tie the State to how the space of modern democratic India, and consequently India itself, is imagined. This, naturally, cannot be done without stripping it of its histories.
This model neither seeks nor benefits from the participation of the public. It has secured impunity from both criticism and lack of popular consent. The matter had still been pending before the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister laid the project’s foundation stone. Several trees from the Parliament site were removed and transplanted in an eco-park close to the Delhi-Haryana border, far beyond the eight pockets within the Central Vista designated as per the plan. Following the green light from the Court earlier this month, the Project, with no provisions to correct its democratic transgressions, received clearance from the Heritage Conservation Committee. Construction of the new Parliament building is now set to begin on 15 January. The barricades placed around the current structures are a reminder that the capital remains closed to those it does not serve, even its closest inhabitants. It is ironic that a Parliament intended to accommodate a larger representation — with a capacity of 900 seats compared to the current 545 — should be built at the expense of India’s democracy.