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Even before Covid arrived in New Delhi for $ 1.8 million, Modi renewed divided opinions

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The revision of the historic center of New Delhi by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always been controversial, even before the Covid-19 pandemic occurred.

Since it was announced in September 2019, the $ 1.8 billion Central Vista redevelopment project has been described as overly expensive, irresponsible for the environment and a threat to cultural heritage. And with Modi’s elaborate new private residence (comprising 10 buildings spread over 6 acres of land) among dozens of planned new government structures, many critics have dismissed the scheme as architectural. vanity project which serves the populist leader of India, not its people.
This outrage has been highlighted in the coronavirus crisis. Amid a devastating second wave that has pushed hospitals across the country to break up, opposition MP Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter last week to compare the cost of the project by the amount needed to vaccinate 450 million Indians or buy 10 million oxygen cylinders. “But (Modi’s) ego is bigger than people’s lives,” he concluded.
A man walks past the construction site of part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

A man walks past the construction site of a part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project. Credit: Manish Rajput / SOPA Images / Sipa USA

Outrage has only grown in recent days, after it is found that the construction of the site has been carried out considered an “essential service” – The significance of the work continues, even though construction projects elsewhere are stalled. This urgency is believed to reflect a race to complete the new triangular parliament, the centerpiece of the project, before the end of 2022, when India celebrates 75 years of independence.

In fact, for nationalists, the symbolism of the building lies not only in its design, which alludes to the importance of triangles in the sacred geometries of various religions, but in India’s ability to complete projects. of large-scale infrastructure quickly and on time.

But while the speed, costs and timing of development have attracted anger, the underlying question of whether to renew the aging of New Delhi’s government district exposes deeper fractions.

There really was no opportunity to comment, critique, suggestion and ideas. There is a vibrant architectural community and very few of them feel that they have been given a fair audience.

Shashi Tharoor, MP and writer

Indian MP and writer Shashi Tharoor, a fierce critic of Modi, has long been outspoken against the project. From the first days of the pandemic it has he called for the government to redirect development funds to help fight Covid-19.

“Why now, at such a colossal expense and at a time when the country and the economy are bursting with the effects of closure?” he told CNN in a telephone interview earlier this year.

However, even such a vocal critic agreed that the modernization of parliament and the Central Visa of India (a 3-kilometer stretch) of New Delhi’s central boulevard, Rajpath, could, in theory, have its merits.

“From a purely utilitarian standpoint, many would agree on the need for some significant changes,” Tharoor said. “One is that the parliament building would have needed an extensive renovation to fit the purpose, and clearly the government concluded that they could not do it and that they had to build a new one.”

The project will include a overhaul of buildings and public space along New Delhi’s central boulevard, Rajpath.

The project will include a overhaul of buildings and public space along New Delhi’s central boulevard, Rajpath. Credit: HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd

“And as for Central Vista, some buildings from the 50s and 60s, some of which I’ve had the dubious pleasure of working on … there’s really an architectural case to get rid of and replace.

“My concern here is the total lack of consultations before such an important decision was made,” he said, adding, “There really has been no opportunity for comment, criticism, suggestions and ideas. There is a community. vibrant architecture and very few feel as if they have been given a fair audience ”.

Fit for purpose?

When work began on the original Vista Central plan in the early 20th century, English architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker envisioned a long ceremonial boulevard similar to the Champs Elysees in Paris or the Washington DC Capitol Complex.

It was known as Kingsway, and the large buildings that ran along its edges were designed to serve a colonial government, not an Indian one.

When the country gained independence from Britain in 1947, India tried to reclaim the district for its own expanding democracy. A statue of King George VI, the then British king and last emperor of India, was demolished, but the colonial structures were largely preserved and reused. The house of the circular council became the parliament of India, the opulent house of the viceroy was transformed into a presidential residence and Kingsway was given a new name: Rajpath.

New Delhi, India - July 8, 2019: Official headquarters of the Persistent of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan

Known as the home of the viceroy by the British, Rashtrapati Bhavan now serves as a presidential residence. Credit: Shutterstock

In the following decades, development in the area accelerated to accommodate the growing administration. Police barracks were built, parking was introduced and new ministerial buildings were demolished on both sides of Central Boulevard.

According to the architect behind the new redevelopment, Bimal Patel, this “casual” expansion has corrupted Lutyens and Baker’s original urban plan and left the area unsuitable for a modern government. The designs of the firm Patel, HCP, were chosen from six proposals in a competition to reimagine the area and modernize the facilities.

“You have old stables and barracks that have become offices: they’re completely dysfunctional. It’s like a low-rise slum, it’s like a small town,” Patel said in a video interview, referring to some buildings. flanking Rajpath.

His company’s overall vision for the 86-acre (35-acre) site includes new chambers for deputies, a conference center and landscaped public gardens. The country’s national archives will be refurbished, while the north and south blocks of the Secretariat building, which currently houses India’s cabinet, will be turned into museums.

We need to improve technology, we need space to eat, we need to create toilets, we need to create storage space and office and administration space, it is very clear that it cannot be done in the available space.

Bimal Patel, architect

With the creation of a new office space, all the ministries currently scattered throughout New Delhi will be relocated to the site. Patel argues that this will make Central Vista a “synergistic location” that will improve the efficiency and productivity of the Indian government.

The symbolic heart of the project is the new parliament of the country. HCP’s triangular design sits directly next to its predecessor, which also becomes a museum. Inside, two horseshoe-shaped chambers will house the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, respectively, the upper and lower chambers of parliament, while a light-filled lobby features an adjoining gallery showing the written constitution of India. .

Deputies will be seated in two instead of piling them on long benches and the new larger parliament includes touch screens for each member.

For Patel, this modernization is a matter of necessity. Although the current parliament has been upgraded over the decades, with new flats added, the old building is now simply small, he argued.

A digital print of the new Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament.

A digital print of the new Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. Credit: HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd

“It’s full of people and there are no more possibilities for expansion at a time when we need to increase the number of seats,” Patel said, referring to a projected increase in the number of Indian MPs to reflect the growing population of the country.

“We need to improve technology, we need space to eat, we need to create toilets, we need to create storage space and office and administration space; it’s very clear that it can’t be done in the available space, so that we have created a new installation next door “.

Constant concerns

Wednesday, two Indian citizens filed a case with the Delhi High Court to try to stop the works in Central Vista, arguing that construction could help spread the Covid-19. The petitioners took the matter to the Supreme Court, after city authorities “had not appreciated the seriousness” of the situation.
This is not the first attempt to formally oppose the renewal. In April last year, eight months before Modi laid the first stone of parliament in a high-profile photo-operation, in request was filed in the Supreme Court against the opposing plans for legal and environmental reasons. The following month, a group of 60 former officials wrote a bit open letter to Modi who described the project as an “thoughtless and irresponsible act” that was motivated by a superstitious belief that the current Parliament building is “bad luck”.

The broad document went on to discuss the “serious environmental damage” that redevelopment will cause to the “lungs of the city.” The plans are “shrouded in secrecy,” it was said, and “are not justified by any public consultation or expert review.”

A copy of India’s constitution will be on display in the new parliament building.

A copy of India’s constitution will be on display in the new parliament building. Credit: HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd

The group also highlighted the architectural value of the buildings destined for demolition, and said the scheme would “irrevocably” destroy the area’s cultural heritage.

Historian Swapna Liddle, who has written several books on the history of New Delhi, echoed some of her concerns. He highlighted the risks of turning symbolic political buildings, such as the north and south blocks, into museums.

“When you say North Block you don’t just mean a building, but an institution in particular,” Liddle said by phone. “The fact that buildings are associated with history, traditions and institutions is very important.

“The House of Parliament is the place where a constitutional debate has taken place, so you should think long before separating the building from the tradition.”

North block of the Secretariat building in New Delhi, the capital of India

The north block of the Secretariat building will be turned into a museum. Credit: Shutterstock

In a polarized political landscape, it is perhaps little surprise that a project of this magnitude has invited criticism from many quarters. But regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the scheme, Modi’s insistence on moving forward amid India’s worst public health crisis in a generation may see him lose the support of allies with whom he could have ever counted.

“People are dying for Covid, but (Modi) ‘s priority is the Vista Central project,” he tweeted Yashwant Sinha, former finance and foreign minister, and member of Modi’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, until 2018. “Shouldn’t we build hospitals? How much more (should) the nation pay to choose a megalomaniac?”

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