The Union environment ministry is considering an ambitious proposal to develop a museum district in one of the greenest areas of Delhi, according to documents seen by Scroll.in. The development is planned in the area between the Delhi Zoo, Pragati Maidan and the Old Fort in central Delhi. The proposal involves constructing a freshwater aquarium – billed as one of the largest in the world – and a National Museum of Natural History, along with redeveloping the National Zoological Park, the Crafts Museum and the National Science Centre.
News of this proposal comes at a time when Delhi residents have been protesting against the cutting of thousands of trees for government housing redevelopment projects. These protests have led to several interventions by courts over the past few weeks.
The proposed project also includes constructing a 120-metre-high office building of approximately 30 storeys, designed in the shape of a conch. According to the documents seen by Scroll.in, the museum district will be named Panchjanya, after the mythological conch of Krishna. Space in this complex will be sold to corporations to offset the project cost.
The project is being designed and promoted by the NBCC (India) Limited, the company under the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs that has been redeveloping government housing colonies in South Delhi. The company has been criticised by residents for cutting a large number of trees for these projects.
Toll on trees
According to the documents seen by Scroll.in, Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan has convened at least two meetings at the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in the past few weeks to move the project ahead.
Representatives from the ministries of culture, tourism, railways and the Delhi government attended the last meeting on June 29, during which concerns were raised about the number of trees that will have to be cut for the project, said people familiar with the proceedings.
Despite repeated reminders, neither the Delhi Forest Department nor the NBCC responded to Scroll.in’s queries on how many trees would be cut for the project. “We are still discussing the viability of the project,” said an officer at the NBCC. “Your questions cannot be answered at this stage.”
About 16.5 acres of land at the Delhi Zoo and 6.4 acres in the vicinity have already been allocated for the proposed aquarium and the National Museum of Natural History, according to the minutes of one of the meetings.
“The project is at a very initial stage,” said an official in the environment ministry who requested anonymity. “We will be preparing a cabinet note on it within a week.”
According to a brief concept note of the project, the proposed aquarium will draw its water from the nearby Yamuna river using underground pipelines, and purify it before use. “Since the water is drawn from river Yamuna and cleaned for the aquarium, this initiative shall reinforce the mission to clean not only the river Yamuna but also all rivers in the country,” the note says.
The construction of the National Museum of Natural History would be “at par with best in the world class as Smithsonian Museum of Washington”, said the note. It adds that a state-of-the-art skywalk will be built to connect the newly constructed and redeveloped buildings to nearby Pragati Maidan, Delhi’s main venue for large exhibitions and conventions that is also in the midst of a massive redevelopment exercise.
The note adds: “To meet the expenditure for construction of the above infrastructure, it is proposed that within the existing area, a corporate office building in the shape of a ‘Shankh’ conch is constructed…The revenue generated by selling off the space of the building shall be utilised for the construction of the infrastructure indicated...above.”
The conch-shaped building will have a skydeck on its topmost floor with a “panoramic view of the city”, and an “exclusive restaurant”. According to the note, the project will cost Rs 4,350 crore, while the revenue generated from selling commercial space in the office complex has been estimated at Rs 6,400 crore. As a consequence, the project will make a profit of Rs 2,550 crore, claims the note.
However, a senior government officer told Scroll.in on condition of anonymity that various Union and Delhi government departments were yet to reach a consensus on the project. Among other things, the ministry of railways has opposed the proposal to lay underground pipes to draw water from the Yamuna for the aquarium since these lines would pass through land that it owns. Similarly, the ministry of culture contended that it did not need the money being raised from the sale of space in the office complex and could set up the natural history museum on its own.
During the June 29 meeting, concerns were also raised that the conch-shaped structure would disturb the skyline, and that permissions from the Archaeological Survey of India would be required for any construction as the project is proposed within 300 meters of the Old Fort, a site protected by the archaeological research and conservation body.