Sixty former civil servants on Sunday wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs (Independent Charge) Hardeep Singh Puri, opposing the Central Vista project, a Rs 20,000-crore venture that aims to build a new Parliament and other central government offices in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Gujarat-based company HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited won the contract in October last year to revamp the Central Vista and Parliament. The three-km-long Central Vista stretches from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate. On March 20, the Centre notified the change in land use for the project. The project aimed to redesign the Central Vista by November 2020, with further changes to Parliament and the ministries over the subsequent four years. There will be no external changes to the Parliament facade, Puri had said last year. It is, however, unlikely to meet the deadline because of the ongoing health crisis.

“We are writing this letter to express our grave concerns about the Central Vista Redevelopment Project currently planned in the most iconic heritage precinct of New Delhi,” the retired civil servants wrote. They said that the preliminary permissions and clearances for redevelopment of the Central Vista have already been obtained, despite much opposition from the public and “innumerable flaws” in the selection procedure.

The signatories said that while the Central Vista was planned and built during British rule, it was “nurtured, savoured and celebrated” after Independence. They said any changes to the area should keep its history in mind. “The Central Vista area has been accorded Grade 1 heritage status under the extant Unified Building Bye Laws of Delhi,” the letter said. “Construction and redesign on the scale planned in the redevelopment project will significantly affect the heritage nature of this precinct, and destroy it irrevocably.”

The retired civil servants also alleged that the redevelopment work will cause a lot of environmental damage. “This precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the city...” they said. “Constructing a large number of multi-storeyed office buildings, with basements, in this open area will create congestion and irreversibly change and damage the environment.”

The signatories added that the Central Vista is also a recreational space for families, especially in the summer. People will be deprived of “innocent and inexpensive pleasures”, such as enjoying an ice cream at the spot, once the redevelopment is under way.

‘Redevelopment approved without Parliamentary debate’

The signatories alleged that the redevelopment was approved because of the superstitious belief that the present Parliament was “unlucky”. They also claimed that the Narendra Modi-led dispensation intends to leave the impress of a particular leader and government on the architecture of Delhi. No Parliamentary debate or discussion took place before the plan was approved, and no experts were consulted, they said.

“Instead a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm in what was an extremely flawed process,” the signatories alleged.

The letter said that a larger Parliament building to accommodate more MPs due to population rise may be unnecessary given that India’s population is projected to decrease from 2061 onward, according to the Economic Survey. “Moreover, constructing a second Parliament building in close proximity to the existing one would diminish the existing Parliament building and might even endanger its foundations,” it said.

The letter said that instead, the existing Parliament can be repurposed to meet the requirements of expansion and modernisation, as is the norm for all parliament buildings around the world. It added that no Heritage Assessment Analysis has been done for any of the buildings proposed to be demolished or rebuilt.

“A premise on which the redevelopment of Central Vista is based, appears to be the necessity to concentrate offices of the Central Government in one place,” the former civil servants said. “This is against the basic tenets of the Master Plan of Delhi which stipulates that no new offices should be built in New Delhi and that efforts should be made to decongest it.”

‘Advice from professional bodies ignored’

The letter said that prominent professional bodies like the Council of Architecture, the Indian Institute of Architects, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, the Institute of Urban Designers India, and the Indian Society of Landscape Architects have written numerous letters to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development with advice on aspects of the redesign plan, but these have been ignored. “If the institutions meant to safeguard the rights and well-being of people in a democratic country can be so arbitrarily ignored, can India still claim to be a democracy?” it said.

The signatories alleged that clearances of the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Vista Committee are being given despite the matter being sub-judice. These approvals have been pushed through hastily, while the country is in a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, they alleged.

“Finally, in the post Covid-19 scenario, when enormous funds are required for strengthening the public health system, to provide sustenance to people and to rebuild the economy, taking up a proposal to redesign the entire Central Vista at a cost of at least Rs 20,000 crores, a figure likely to escalate significantly, seems particularly irresponsible,” the letter said. Calling for work on the project to be stopped immediately, the signatories added: “It seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.”

On April 30, the Supreme Court had declined to stay the project, but said that no work can be carried out on it while the coronavirus crisis continued. The project, originally supposed to be completed by November this year, has also been opposed by the Congress party.