Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures

100 years after the foundation was laid for the current parliament of India by Duke of Connaught in 1921, came the news of laying the foundation for the new parliament building set to be completed in 2022. In December 2020, the present-day Prime Minister of IndiaNarendraModiconducted the ceremony that marked the official beginning of the new Central Vista Project. The parliament building commemorates the 75th anniversary of Independence of the world’s largest democracy.

Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021

Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Malavika Nair, Kavya Krishnan
Profession: Student
Country: Ernakulam

The present parliament building was designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker to accommodate the bicameral legislature that was elected for the first time in 1921.These buildings, constructed in the last five decades of British rule, are legacies whose distinct architectural style is an amalgamation of Britain and Indian elements. The Imperial architecture was appropriated to suit Indian climate and context. This can be seen in the stone jalis that facilitate ventilation or in the open verandahs, large colonnades andoverhanging eaves that provide shade and control temperature.

The need for the new parliament arose from the lack of office space to meet the demands of the increasing number of elected representatives. This currently accounts for 100 crore rupees of renting the same. There are also claims of the existing structures not meeting safety, earthquake and fire proofing standards and not supporting technological and networking advancements.

The new Central Vista Redevelopment project boasts of tech friendly, energy efficient structures with increased seating capacity and accessibility. It aspires to be representative of India’s cultural diversity by using indigenous architectural elements and materials, all of which is estimated to cost about 20,000crore Indian rupees. The redevelopment includes a new prime minister’s residence and office, vice president’senclave, government buildings and the triangular parliamentary complex.

This extravagant project has been met with increased criticism from multiple disciplines ranging from urban planners to scholars and politicians. The uproar was caused by the callous timing and tremendous expense especially because of the failing healthcare system and record levels of unemployment during the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice of architectural consultant insinuated favoritism and highlighted the government’s perpetual disdain for architecture and history.ICOMOS which has declared their commitment to heritage and democracy states that “intentional destruction which aims to erase cultural identity is a breach of fundamental human rights.”Thereby, criticism was sparked by the lack of public consultation and transparency which is against the ethos of democracy.

The justification for the new premises because of high rental costs was countered by experts like Ar. Madhav Raman. The expense is a no-profit-no-loss system, as it’s paid to the Land and Development Office which thereby circulates back to the government and is used to maintain the premises. Hence, a new larger office space would only incur higher expense and maintenance.

The capital of India, New Delhi, has been consecutively ranked as the city with the worst air quality in the world. This project, the cherry on top, will generate 700 trucks of construction dust and debris every day for the next four years. It will also strip the Rajpath of all its trees that the government claims will be transplanted to the outskirts of the city. But this has been dismissed by environmental activists as being impractical due to the deplorable soil, air and water condition of the city. The Rajpath, also used as a ground for Republic Day Parade, is a bustling public space which will be taken over for the new complex. It will change the character of the space even though the government insist otherwise. This seems more like the Prime Ministers vanity project for pampering the government instead of prioritizing the health and wellness of the public. Multiple other issues faced by the Environment Ministry were swept under the rug including the lack of alternate proposals and justification of increased cost, all of which are prerequisites for environmental clearance.

India’s treatment of heritage and architecture has been particularly cavalier in the last few years. This news came fresh on the heels of discussions to demolish the iconic IIM dormitories designed by master architect Louis Khan. This is even more surprising given that the institution was recently recognized with a UN Award for conserving and restoring parts of the main campus. It was the timely intervention of architectural communities and conservationists like ICOMOS who saved the footprint of this masterpiece from being tainted. Not all epochal heritage were spared from the bulldozer. This revives the memory of Delhi’s Hall of Nations’ demolition, which proceeded despite widespread opposition from all over the world including requests from Centre of Pompidou, Paris and Museum of Modern Art, New York. India’s oldest surviving Islamic Palace, the 800-year-old LalMahal, became an afterthought of the capital city’s concrete jungle, only to eventually get knocked down. One might think that this fate of the palace was because it wasn’t listed under heritage protection but various instances prove otherwise. 35 ASI protected buildings were demolished including the marvelous gate of 16th century ruler Sher Shah.This pattern is reflective of the government’s contempt of heritage and architecture. To the contrary, various other governments have strived to adapt to contemporary times while preserving their architectural heritage. The parliament in Washington DC and the White House protected the architectural shell while making the interiors facilitate latest networking and security. This is why the need for this project was also questioned by various Indian Conservation architects who brought forth studies that proved that the government’s requirements can be met by retrofitting.

The British were so preoccupied securing the Kohinoor that they forgot the treasure of architecture they left behind. The stage of Nehru’s democratic India is to bepreserved as a relic of the past. The irony is uncanny as this“museum of democracy” will now mark the beginning of electoral autocracy.The most intriguing facet of the current government is that its strategies are not as arbitrary as it looks on the surface. It is in fact, a formulaic place marketing strategy coalesced with Hindu party (RSS) goals and neoliberalism which in turn stigmatizes the minority. The Prime Minister has various pet projects that accentuate his fascination with scale like the 182-meter-high Statue of Unity or his Gujarat International Finance Tec-City which alleges to be eight times the size of London docklands. The Central Vista Project is just another feather in his cap which he defends as a crucial historical initiative to embody the post-colonial democratic nation like in Australia and US. The aftermath of the government’s motives is endured by heritage, culture and humanity. The collective voice of the architecture community and its allies is falling on deaf ears. The years of self-centered administration and attempts at immortalizing the Prime Minister’s legacy has led to culture and heritage becoming an inconsequential pawn in the master plan that is the new Hindu India. Decades of rich and complex pasts have turned to dust,only to stamp a new cultural identity in its place. Why is there an incessant need to create a new identity that erases the past instead of evolving from it? What future do we foresee if it’s built on the ashes of our heritage?


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