India has big plans for iconic heritage area

The 42m-high India Gate, a war memorial, is one of many historical buildings that line a 3km stretch in New Delhi, with architecture combining Mughal, British and Indian influences. They were all built in the early 1900s. ST FILE PHOTO
The 42m-high India Gate, a war memorial, is one of many historical buildings that line a 3km stretch in New Delhi, with architecture combining Mughal, British and Indian influences. They were all built in the early 1900s. ST FILE PHOTO

But critics want govt to reveal blueprint before redeveloping Delhi's historic sites

An area stretching from Rashtrapati Bhawan, or the President's House, to India Gate, a 42m-high war memorial, in Delhi has some of India's most iconic buildings.

Pink and yellow sandstone buildings - including the office of the prime minister in South Block and the finance ministry in North Block - line the 3km stretch, with architecture combining Mughal, British and Indian influences.

These heritage sites were all built in the early 1900s.

Scattered around them are six newer government buildings, constructed after India's independence in 1947 from the British to house the growing bureaucracy. Many are run-down, and all housing a maze of offices from different ministries.

Every day, hundreds of tourists walk down the Central Vista, as government officials rush in and out to get from one ministry to another, navigating roundabouts with manicured gardens.

Delhi was the capital of the Mughal Empire during the rule of Shah Jahan from 1628 to 1658. The area that existed during that time is now part of Old Delhi.

The British, who came after the Mughals, made Delhi their capital city in 1911, shifting the colonial administration from the eastern city of Calcutta, now known as Kolkatta. They designed the North Block, South Block and Parliament House.

Now, for the first time in decades, the Narendra Modi government is planning major changes to this central area known as Lutyens Delhi, named after Edwin Lutyen, the British architect who planned the capital city during the British rule.

The government has invited bids for a revamp of the Central Vista, and also redevelopment of the Parliament building or construction of a new one, and potential demolition of government offices to make way for a common secretariat for all ministries.

The government has said it will not touch heritage structures, but wants to rebuild office buildings to cut down costs of maintenance and put in infrastructure like toilets and eateries for tourists.

 

"It is the Prime Minister's dream project. Most of these buildings came up from 1911 to 1927, and they are very imposing. But those constructed after independence, some of these seem to have been built in a hurry, and may have outlived their purpose," said Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently. "Also, many of the post-independence buildings are not earthquake-resistant and cost us on repairs."

According to the government, it spends 10 billion rupees (S$192 million) every year on renting offices. There are no estimates on the cost of redevelopment. Yet the plan to revamp the area has raised concerns among architects and planners. Critics said there is a lack of clarity and an undue rush in bringing changes to an iconic area.

According to sources, the plan is to initiate construction in February 2021, and complete the upgrading of facilities on the Central Vista - just part of the entire redevelopment - in time for the 2022 Republic Day parade on Jan 26.

"Any plans should be transparent and inclusive. It's a major project being done extremely fast and that doesn't bode well. We don't know the essentials," said architect, urban planner and conservation consultant A.G.K. Menon, who is adviser to the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), a non-profit organisation.

"This is an iconic world-class site. You should know what to do, whether to conserve or destroy. You can't ask a bidder to tell us what should be done. We said clearly the government is bold in wanting to do this," he said. "This (area) has been neglected for quite some time. But there is a process to conservation."

He said Intach had worked on the refurbishment of Rashtrapati Bhawan in a phased manner to figure out what needed to be done.

A petition on Change.org, which has garnered more than 6,500 signatures, has asked for the President's intervention in stopping the project. It noted that "processes like a diagnostic study or needs assessment" had not been done. It also noted that the tender document does not "indicate height control of proposed redeveloped buildings, without which the entire look of New Delhi will be destroyed".

Officials have said there is a need to upgrade government offices. There are 70,000 officers working in the many ministries in central Delhi. "There is the problem of fire, water seepage, parking chaos. It's urban chaos," said an official.

Still, many people remain unconvinced by the government's plans.

Writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi, who conducts heritage walks in Delhi, said the government should involve town planners, environmentalists, architects, historians, heritage enthusiasts, the creative community and people's representatives in deciding on the need or otherwise of this project.

"There is no reason for this hurry, except for the unseemly hurry of the present political dispensation to be seen as grand builders."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2019, with the headline 'India has big plans for iconic heritage area'. Print Edition | Subscribe