The government is seriously considering a far-reaching overhaul of New Delhi’s “Central Vista”, the ceremonial and official area leading from India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill.
This area includes not just the old princes’ buildings around the India Gate hexagon, but also the heritage buildings of the Central Secretariat, Sir Herbert Baker’s Parliament House, and the post-Independence “general purpose office accommodations” such as Udyog Bhavan and Shastri Bhavan. The area also includes barracks converted into permanent office buildings, some dating from the Second World War. The government’s aim, according to reports quoting a proposal from the Central Public Works Department, is to upgrade public facilities, amenities, parking, and green space to make the area a world-class tourist destination by November 2020, and to create “new iconic structures” that would be “a legacy for 150 to 200 years” and represent “the values and aspirations for a New India ... rooted in the Indian culture and social milieu”.
The Indian government has not had a great record with building new and aesthetically pleasing offices, so there is naturally some concern at this proposal. Will any new developments indeed be harmonious additions to the skyline of Raisina Hill?
While the historical environs of South and North Block as well as Parliament should surely be preserved, given that they are treasures not just of India but the world, the Secretariat buildings can be turned into a museum of modern Indian history. Parliament might need a new wing, as an extension of the old one, which could be used only for occasions of ceremonial importance such as opening debates and Budget speeches. And certainly, there can be no objection to repurposing the socialist-era structures such as Shastri Bhavan.
The best practices for accountability and urban rejuvenation suggest that government offices be spread across a large area to make them easier to access and to provide ancillary benefits to the largest possible number of people. But the question is whether any such redesign plans indeed go far enough. They do not challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying Sir Edwin Lutyens’ city of government. Those assumptions — that the rulers are separated from the ruled, and live in imperial pomp and suburban comfort in the middle of the city — are more suited to a colonial power than to the capital of a liberal republic with a rich democratic past and present. It is not just the Central Vista that needs a redesign but the Lutyens Bungalow Zone itself, which perpetuates the separateness of the people and their government, and insulates politicians and bureaucrats from the real world. A new Gujarat Bhavan over multiple storeys has shown that the taboo about piercing New Delhi’s tree line can be broken. At the very least, more buildings can be built on existing plots by subdividing them. Some of the new buildings like the Ambedkar Bhawan or the Comptroller and Auditor General headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg do not inspire much confidence about the architectural intentions of the government. Besides being examples of inefficient usage of space, they raise a fundamental question: Are they symbols of a super-powerful Central government or of an open democratic society? An answer to this question should be the next step towards democratising New Delhi.