60 Retired Civil Servants urge PM Modi to scrap Central Vista project

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A group of 60 retired IAS and IPS officers, including two former secretaries in the environment ministry, have urged the Narendra Modi government to not go ahead with its ambitious Central Vista project.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, former secretaries, environment ministry, Meena Gupta and Tishyarakshit Chatterjee, and Narendra Sisodia (former secretary, finance), senior IPS officer Julio Ribeiro, former ambassadors Aftab Seth and Ashok Kumar Sharma, a former Income Tax commissioner A. Selvaraj and others have 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 redevelopment planned will, moreover cause severe environmental damage,” the letter states. “This precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the city, with its dense mature tree canopies serving as a repository of bio diversity and the vast lawns of the Vista as a watershed for the city between the Ridge and the Yamuna.”

It adds, “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 letter says Delhi already suffers from “enormous environmental pollution”. “To plan something which will increase this pollution many, many times, not merely during the construction phase but also subsequently, is clearly a thoughtless and irresponsible act.”

The Central Vista plan

In a controversial Rs 20,000-crore project, the Modi government seeks to redevelop the iconic Central Vista, and build a triangular Parliament building next to the existing one, common Central Secretariat, revamp the 3-km Rajpath, build a new Parliament House on a 9.5-acre land near the existing building, reportedly shift the Prime Minister’s residence and office near the South Block, and build the Vice-President’s new house in the vicinity of the North Block.

Despite opposition against the plan on account of environmental degradation, obliteration of Indian heritage, and allegations of spending crores on this project at a time of a public health emergency, the government has not halted the project.

In their letter, the retired officers have also said the government has provided no details about the necessity of the project, and instead the purpose of the redevelopment seems to be to leave the stamp of a particular government on Delhi.

“This project began, if reports are to be believed, because of a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky’, as well as with the thought of leaving a particular government and its leader’s impression on the architecture of Delhi,” the letter states. “There was no Parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by any public consultation or expert review. 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.”

It adds, “The selected architectural firm appears to have been given carte blanche to make whatever changes it wishes, with all government departments seemingly mandated to do whatever is required to enable the firm’s actions.”

The plan to concentrate offices of the central government in one place, moreover, belies the Modi government’s own stated aim of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, the officers have 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. It is also out of sync with the maxim of ‘less government, more governance’, which the present government had in its manifesto,” the letter states.

Letter questions ‘haste’

The officers have also raised questions over the “haste” with which the project is being pushed through despite an unprecedented countrywide lockdown, which has stalled all routine governance and economic activity throughout the country. “It is sad to note that approvals of empowered supervisory bodies like the Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Vista Committee have been pushed through in great haste at meetings convened at short notice while the country is in lockdown due to the Covid 19 epidemic, and despite the absence of private members who expressed their inability to attend and advised waiting till the nation returned to normalcy.”

The letter says, “The clearances are being given despite the matters being sub judice. These bodies have, unfortunately, been reduced to mere rubber stamps with notes of dissent not even recorded.”

At a time when crores would be needed to boost the economy as it slumps in the face of the lockdown, the government trying to push a heritage redevelopment project of this nature is akin to “Nero fiddling while Rome burned”, the officers have said.

“We strongly believe that this project needs to be stopped forthwith for the multiple and complex reasons we have mentioned above. We appeal to the government to see the fallacy in going ahead with this project and to issue the necessary notifications forthwith to stop the work from going ahead.”

See the full text of the open letter here.

Open Letter                                                 May 17, 2020

Honourable Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi
Honourable Housing and Urban Affairs Minister of India, Shri Hardeep Singh Puri

We are a group of retired civil servants belonging to the All-India and Central Services
from all over India. As a group, we do not subscribe to any particular political ideology
but focus upon issues that have a bearing upon the Indian Constitution and issues of
democracy.
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 preliminaries for the execution of the first building among many in this
area, viz. the new Parliament building have already been obtained as seen in the
national news. This, despite widespread, and very relevant opposition from the public
and innumerable flaws in the selection procedure.

India and its capital Delhi are the proud possessors of this remarkable, historical
precinct, known as the Central Vista, built during the British Raj, but nurtured,
savoured and celebrated largely in the post-Independence era. Any interventions to
change this area would need to be mindful of this history. The Central Vista area has
been accorded Grade 1 heritage status under the extant Unified Building Bye Laws of
Delhi. 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 redevelopment planned will, moreover cause severe environmental damage. This
precinct is at the core of the congested capital of Delhi, and acts as the lungs of the
city, with its dense mature tree canopies serving as a repository of bio diversity and
the vast lawns of the Vista as a watershed for the city between the Ridge and the
Yamuna. 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. Delhi already suffers from enormous environmental
pollution. To plan something which will increase this pollution many, many times, not
merely during the construction phase but also subsequently, is clearly a thoughtless
and irresponsible act.

A third purpose that the Central Vista serves at present is as a recreational space for
the whole city. Families throng the area on summer nights to sit around in the open
air and enjoy the occasional icecream – innocent and inexpensive pleasures which
they will be deprived of once the Vista’s character undergoes a change. One must
realise that open spaces which are gated or surrounded by government office buildings
are not the same as public open spaces where citizens are free to carry out routine

activities of recreation and celebration or even of peaceful protest. Governments hold
public land in a fiduciary capacity and large scale changes based on flawed perceptions
should not have place in a democratic country.

There is a great deal wrong with the conceptualization of the project. Rather than
establishing the necessity of the project with sound prior studies on environmental
and technical parameters, this project began, if reports are to be believed, because of
a superstitious belief that the present Parliament building is ‘unlucky’, as well as with
the thought of leaving a particular government and its leader’s impress on the
architecture of Delhi. There was no Parliamentary debate or discussion that preceded
the decisions taken. Moreover, the redevelopment plans were not substantiated by
any public consultation or expert review. 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 selected architectural firm appears to have been
given carte blanche to make whatever changes it wishes, with all government
departments seemingly mandated to do whatever is required to enable the firm’s
actions. The selection of the firm and the processes employed to do so leave a lot of
questions unanswered. It is also pertinent to note that there has been no accessible
explicit exhibition of the scheme drawings, data or preceding studies for domain
experts or common citizens to understand what exactly is planned in this very
important public space. This goes against all democratic norms.

One of the premises on which the proposal is founded is the construction of an all new
Parliament adjoining the iconic old Parliament in anticipation of the delimitation,
stating as a reason the supposedly antiquated nature of its present premises, which
need renovation and updating. A larger parliament building to accommodate a larger
number of MPs (in view of the increase in population) is itself questionable because
the population is projected to decrease post 2061as borne out by the Economic Survey
indicating declining fertility rates in several States. 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. The land use of the area
on which the new Parliament building is proposed to be constructed was changed by
the DDA after conducting a perfunctory hearing into a very large number of objections
made by the public. Preliminary studies have shown that the existing Parliament can
be repurposed to meet the requirement of expansion and modernization. Indeed, this
is the norm for all heritage structures including Parliament buildings all over the world.
Surely our Parliament deserves the same respect. No Heritage Assessment Analysis
has been done for any of the valuable buildings proposed to be either demolished or
re-purposed.
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. 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. It is also out of
sync with the maxim of ‘less government, more governance’, which the present
government had in its manifesto.
Though much of the plan is shrouded in secrecy, it is learnt that the proposal also
calls for the demolition of four Bhawans built in the 1960s, the iconic National Museum,
Vigyan Bhawan, the fairly recently built IGNCA, and the very new and expensive
Ministry of External Affairs buildings. Other than the value, both monetary and
symbolic embedded in these buildings, this flies in the face of the principles of
conservation and the basic tenets of sustainability, Some of these buildings, moreover,
and the National Archives to which additions impermissible as per extant rules are
planned, are repositories of artefactual and documentary cultural heritage which
would be gravely endangered in the large scale project so casually proposed.

Eminent professional bodies like the Council of Architecture (COA), the Indian Institute
of Architects (IIA), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH),
the Institute of Urban Designers India (IUDI), and the Indian Society of Landscape
Architects (ISOLA) have written numerous letters with sound and detailed advice on
various aspects of the redesign plan to the Minister of Housing & Urban Affairs.
Unfortunately, these letters have been ignored and even replies to these letters have
not been forthcoming. 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 is sad to note that approvals of empowered supervisory bodies like the
Environmental Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Environment and the Central
Vista Committee have been pushed through in great haste at meetings convened at
short notice while the country is in lockdown due to the Covid 19 epidemic, and despite
the absence of private members who expressed their inability to attend and advised
waiting till the nation returned to normalcy. The clearances are being given despite
the matters being sub judice. These bodies have, unfortunately, been reduced to mere
rubber stamps with notes of dissent not even recorded.

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 20000 crores, a figure likely to escalate significantly, seems particularly
irresponsible. It seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

We strongly believe that this project needs to be stopped forthwith for the multiple
and complex reasons we have mentioned above.