The Central Vista is an iconic 3 km stretch in the heart of New Delhi that runs from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. Flanked by large green spaces and containing significant structures such as Parliament, the Secretariat buildings and the National Archives, it is recognised around the world as a striking example of innovative urban planning and architecture.
Not surprisingly, the Central government’s plan to redevelop the Central Vista, announced in September 2019, has attracted a flurry of debate. Some people have criticised it as an exercise in vanity, while others have questioned the opaque process that resulted in the project being awarded to a Gujarat-based architecture firm. The destruction of national heritage has also been a recurring theme.
From an economic perspective, the estimated cost of Rs. 20,000 crores is equivalent to 1% of the Centre’s purported Covid-19 relief package (and 0.1% of India’s GDP). Such economic wastefulness at the taxpayer’s expense in building a new Parliament, a bunch of government offices, residences for the prime minister and the vice president could not come at a worse time, making a most persuasive case for the project to be junked.
The redevelopment entails altering some structures and demolishing certain buildings within the Parliament complex, modifying the National Archives and constructing several new buildings along the Central Vista, including residences for the prime minister and vice president, completely altering its layout.
So far, two petitions have filed before the Delhi High Court against the change in land use of plots within the Central Vista. The first petition was abruptly transferred from the High Court to the Supreme Court in “larger public interest”, without being “a reflection on the proceedings before the High Court, in any manner”, according to the top court. But in its order, the Supreme Court did not stay the project. It merely ordered that any steps taken by the authorities during the petition’s pendency “will be subject to the outcome of the proceedings”.
The fate of the second petition was even more dismal – it was rejected on April 30 by the Supreme Court with liberty to the petitioner to amend the first petition. In doing so, the Chief Justice of India remarked, “During Covid-19 situation, nobody is going to do anything [on the project] and there is no urgency.”
Despite these questions being raised before the judiciary, one significant area remains largely unexplored – the redevelopment being at odds with regulations governing heritage conservation as well as the Indian Constitution. As per a 2009 notification issued by the government of Delhi, the Central Vista Precincts are listed as a Grade I heritage precinct and the North and South Block buildings, the National Archives, Parliament House and Campus as Grade I heritage buildings. Grade I heritage consists of buildings and precincts of national or historic importance, embodying excellence in architectural style, design and aesthetics and which are the prime landmarks of the region.
The Union Minister for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, which is overseeing the project through the Central Public Works Department, has attempted to quell initial apprehensions that some of these Grade I heritage structures will be demolished as part of the new plan – but it has not formally said so.
Early reports suggested that the new Parliament building may be built within the existing circular façade. The South Block, which the CPWD in 2013 said was being maintained in “excellent condition”, was in September 2019 declared to not be earthquake safe. Despite this, the project envisages converting these allegedly inadequate Secretariat buildings into museums, indicating the arbitrariness in decision making.
Compared to the provisions applicable in 2009 (when the heritage notification was issued), the criteria for classification as Grade I heritage is unchanged under the Unified Building Byelaws for Delhi 2016 (Unified Byelaws). These are regulations notified under the Delhi Development Act, 1957, governing all building activity in the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
The Unified Byelaws state that no intervention shall be permitted in Grade I heritage buildings and precincts “unless it is necessary in the interest of strengthening and prolonging” their life, and that “absolutely essential and minimum changes would be allowed”, in conformity with the original.
On the face of it, some of the proposed changes appear to be irreconcilable with the Unified Byelaws. Additionally, procedural requirements stipulate that redevelopment or alterations shall not take place without prior permission from the municipal authority, which itself should consult and act as per the advice of the Heritage Conservation Committee.
Prior to granting permission, the Heritage Conservation Committee also has to invite and consider objections from the public. Compliance with these provisions is indispensable, and the status of meeting these requirements must be disclosed by the Central government. It can also be called into question whether any permission granted by the Heritage Conservation Committee is based on consideration of relevant material and whether the public consultation process was duly followed.
Moreover, the 1988 Lutyens Bungalow Zone Guidelines point to separate regulations being applicable for the Central Vista. The CPWD tender for the project (accessed from tenderwizard.com) states that the consultant should adhere to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone Guidelines and the Central Vista Committee Guidelines. The exact nature of the Central Vista regulations and their conformity must be ascertained – previous efforts have resulted in bizarre claims by the CPWD (covered by Scroll.in), from not having a copy of the Central Vista guidelines to claiming that “there are no written guidelines”.
The approval for the new Parliament building, granted at a meeting of the Central Vista Committee on April 23 during the lockdown, is also highly questionable. This Committee is headed by a functionary of the CPWD, and the agenda was presented for consideration by the CPWD’s executive engineer for the project – when none of the non-government representatives could attend, even through video conferencing.
Any approval given at such a meeting smacks of mala fides and makes the CPWD the judge, jury and executioner – violating the principle of natural justice that no one can be a judge in his own cause.
Lastly, it must also be noted that the plan runs contrary to Chapter 10 of the Master Plan for Delhi-2021, which identifies the Central Vista as a “Heritage Zone” and advocates that it must be conserved. This was briefly touched upon in the second petition rejected by the Supreme Court on April 30. This Master Plan is notified under the Delhi Development Act, 1957, with statutory provisions stipulating compliance of development activity to a notified plan and listing penal consequences for contravention, including against a person acting at the instance of the government.
As the debate about the plan rages, it is also worth turning to the Constitution of India. Article 51-A sets out the fundamental duties of Indian citizens, and Clause (f) states that it shall be the duty of citizens “to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”. Though not directly enforceable by Courts, numerous environmental cases have interpreted fundamental duties as casting positive obligations upon the government, extending even to reviewing policy decisions in fit cases.
Even if Article 51-A(f) is deemed to be unenforceable on its own, it can be coupled with the provisions of the Unified Byelaws and other regulations, as well as the fundamental right to life under Article 21. The Supreme Court has recognised that “life” includes one’s culture and heritage, and “protection of that heritage in its full measure” would fall within Article 21. These observations were made in 1988 in a petition alleging mismanagement of a museum trust. Ultimately, the Supreme Court declined to intervene based on peculiar facts, such as the petition not being filed in public interest but for settling scores between members of the Jaipur royal family – which consideration can be safely ruled out in the present context.
All these are plausible legal contentions that could hobble the project. A combined challenge, calling upon the judiciary to reconcile executive decision-making with these norms, could potentially alter the outcome of the redevelopment.
In conclusion, it must be noted that in 2012, India’s delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation submitted a proposal for conferring the status of a World Heritage Site to the city of Delhi, including the Central Vista. These areas were deemed to possess “Outstanding Universal Value”, within the meaning of the UNESCO Convention.
While the second stage of the process was abruptly halted by the Modi government in 2015, the Tentative List of the World Heritage Centre continues to list India’s submission – a position backed by the Archaeological Survey of India – leaving room for conversion from the Tentative List to a formal nomination for World Heritage status at a subsequent date.
The Centre would be ill-advised to make haste and irreversibly alter New Delhi’s aesthetics. A paradigm shift in outlook cannot possibly be justified merely because the political dispensation in 2012 and is not the same. as the present one. Protecting national heritage must transcend party lines.
Rohan Deshpande is a practicing advocate based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @RohanDesh13.