The buildings of modern New Delhi tell the tale of the past century, ever since the British unexpectedly shifted the capital of the empire away from Calcutta in 1911. From the iconic colonial-era structures that now represent the Indian republic, like Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan, to altered princely palaces and Nehruvian ministry buildings, you can draw out the history of the capital through the structures on its Central Vista.
But some of this could change by the time India celebrates its 75th Independence Day in 2022, given the plans of the Bharatiya Janata Party government.
On September 2, the Central Public Works Department under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs released a tender calling for proposals for “Development/Redevelopment of Parliament Building, Common Central Secretariat and Central Vista”.
News reports suggested that this planned redevelopment could mean several iconic buildings might be demolished or renovated. But the minister of housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri, subsequently, clarified that Parliament would not be demolished.
“No one in their right mind will try to dismantle these buildings and no one said we are going to take apart the Parliament, it is heritage,” Puri told the Indian Express on September 23. He added that the Bhawans, which house ministries, would go, since “they are in such poor state.”
Speaking at a seminar on September 19, Puri said many buildings on the Central Vista reflected the “colonial ethos that the country was subjected to”.
Some heritage conservationists and historians, however, disagree.
“Earlier rulers in Delhi added to Delhi’s architectural beauty,” historian Narayani Gupta told Scroll.in over email. “They also created their own spaces. The ensemble of the monuments on Raisina Hill, the stretch of green and the water channels, is more beautiful than the National Mall [in Washington] or Paris’ Champs Elysees. To destroy in order to erect other structures is a sign of lack of confidence.”
What does the tender say?
The objective of the tender is to “replan the entire Central Vista area from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan up to India Gate”, familiar to most Indians because of the Republic Day parade. The new plan, the tender states, will represent “values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity and is rooted in the Indian Culture and social milieu.” It aims to redesign the Central Vista by November 2020, with further changes to Parliament and the ministries over the subsequent four years.
The tender is not specific about the structures that could possibly be demolished.
When contacted, KS Gaur, director of tech and public relations at Central Public Works Department told Scroll.in that plans to redevelop the heritage area were at the “idea stage”. “Nobody has any clarity on this right now,” Gaur said. “We have to wait till we get the proposals. It is according to that we will know what is to be done.”
The tender calls for redesigning Parliament, either with the “same outer façade or construct a new state-of–art building located in close vicinity.” Why? The tender states that current facilities are inadequate for Members of Parliament, a situation that is expected to get worse because of the likely increase in number of seats in the Lok Sabha, expected in 2026.
Other buildings listed in the tender are the National Museum, National Archives of India, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and complexes like Udyog Bhawan, Rail Bhawan, lined along the wide, evergreen gardens.
Making no mention of a colonial ethos, the tender claims that some of these buildings are approaching the end of their “structural lives” while those that are around a 100 years old, like North and South Blocks, are not “earthquake safe”. “The spread of Central Government Ministries and Departments in different locations leads to inefficiencies and difficulty in coordination,” it adds.
What about guidelines?
The tender states that the consultant chosen for the project would have to adhere to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone Guidelines and Central Vista Committee Guidelines.
The Lutyens Bungalow Zone Guidelines were issued in 1988, with the aim of maintaining visual continuity. But guidelines for the Central Vista are not as clearly stipulated. Scroll.in contacted the Delhi Urban Art Commission and the Central Public Works Department, both of which claimed to not have a copy of these guidelines.
“There are no written guidelines,” said Ashok Kumar Sharma, chief architect at CPWD, who is also member secretary of the Central Vista Committee. Sharma said that the committee will only meet to consider the matter once a specific proposal is submitted.
What are the concerns?
Experts have questioned whether sufficient analysis was done prior to the tender being issued.
Conservationist and former convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, AGK Menon said that it was necessary for the government to first conduct a conservation assessment of the structures. “They have left this to the bidder,” said Menon, who also drafted the aborted proposal to nominate Delhi for the UNESCO World Heritage City tag.
Menon did not dismiss the need for redevelopment of the Central Vista area though. “Something needs to be done for sure,” he said. “The trees are dying and the buildings need to be refurbished.”
But he was concerned about the tight deadline of the project. “Why the hurry?” Menon said. “This is a very lengthy process and we have to look at it on a case by case basis. There are hundreds of questions that need to be answered.”
Who will do the redevelopment?
The tender details the eligibility criteria for consultants, including a complex set of requirements that architects have objected to.
In the document, it is stated that national and international companies registered in India with an annual turnover of Rs 20 crore can apply. Among the several financial requirements, it also states that the bidder should have the experience of a single building project with comprehensive details, design, infrastructure and site development of value not less than “Rs 250 crore or two works of Rs 180 crore each or three works of Rs 120 crore each”.
The bidder should also have the experience of a single building project for a state government or Central government valued at Rs 250 crore for construction cost.
Architects called these terms “restrictive”. “I do not think that any architect in the country would qualify for this,” said Divya Kush, president of the Indian Institute of Architects. “This criteria will mostly help foreign firms.”
In addition to this, the tender also required those submitting proposals to pay a deposit of Rs 50 lakh as “earnest money”. This fee was later reduced to Rs 25 lakh and the deadline to apply extended to September 30, The Hindu reported on September 17.
Two days after the bid was released, the Indian Institute of Architects wrote a letter to Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri, against the bidding criteria and suggested an alternate one.
“It is requested that the architect for this project of national importance and unique iconicity be selected through a two-stage design competition strictly as per the guidelines prescribed by the Council of Architecture, body constituted by an Act of Parliament itself,” the letter dated September 4 stated.
On September 9, the Council of Architecture also sent a letter to the Union ministry of urban affairs objecting to the criteria. The letter states that architects should not have to pay the fees mentioned in the tender. It adds that an open design competition should be held. “This will ensure that only the best concept and design is selected for a building which shall showcase the embodiment of Indian democracy and its values to the world,” the letter adds.
“Such projects happen once in a lifetime,” Kush said. “We should get the best in terms of concept and design and not if the architect has a Rs 20 crore turnover.”