The Narendra Modi government’s project to redevelop India’s central administrative area in New Delhi has been in the eye of the storm. But the project’s chief architect believes the opposition is mainly due to a lack of awareness.
The Central Vista project, which aims to redevelop and expand India’s parliament, prime minister’s residence, and several other government buildings, has been called a symbol of apathy and has been cited as an example of misplaced priorities of the government in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On July 12, a group from the western state of Maharastra conducted a public meeting in the capital against the project, arguing that the country “needs hospitals and not a new mansion for the prime minister.” In May, when the project was drawing flak over its continuation despite the catastrophic second wave of Covid-19, the Central Public Works Department prohibited photography and video recording at the construction site, making way for more harsh criticism.
Quartz reached out to Bimal Patel, chief architect of the project, to address these controversies. His firm, HCP Design, Planning and Management had bagged the contract for designing Modi’s ambitious project in 2019. The estimated cost of the project is reportedly more than Rs20,000 crore ($2.8 billion).
Blaming it all to a lack of adequate information about the project, Patel said, “Central Vista will play an important role in defining new India.” Edited excerpts:
What is your vision for the Central Vista project?
We would like the ongoing transformation of the Central Vista in New Delhi to symbolise that India, as it enters the 75th year of its independence, is confidently resolved to tackle the difficult problems that have plagued it for decades. That it is resolutely focused on meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens by modernising itself. That it respects tradition but is not held hostage to it. That it is concerned about the environment but not paralysed by it. That it can be modern, without making a show of its modernity.
The project has six objectives:
- Modernising parliament’s facilities: A new Parliament building is proposed adjacent to the existing building. It will be India’s first purpose-designed parliament, equipped with state-of-the-art infrastructure to meet all needs of an expanded parliament. After the present building is retrofitted and refurbished, the two will be used in conjunction. A separate facility to house offices for members of parliament is also proposed. The present parliament building, library, and annexe, along with the new Parliament building and chambers for members of parliament will form the legislative enclave.
- Improving productivity and efficiency: The proposed common central secretariat will include 10 office buildings and a central conference centre. All ministries of the government will be consolidated in one place. All offices will also be connected by a people mover to the Delhi Metro. The secretariat will be served by highly energy-efficient and sustainable infrastructure.
- Strengthening cultural and recreational facilities: Public spaces within Central Vista will be expanded, refurbished, and equipped with adequate amenities and infrastructure while retaining their essential character. Adequate infrastructure will be provided for national events to reduce the damage and disruption they cause. The National Museum will be relocated to the magnificent North and South Blocks and conceptualised to present the rich heritage and achievements of the nation in a modern and engaging manner.
- Providing modern and secure infrastructure: A modern, secure, and appropriately equipped executive enclave is proposed to house executive offices and facilities for the prime minister’s office, the cabinet secretariat, and the National Security Council. Consolidating them will also result in reducing disruption caused to city traffic.
- Providing residential facilities for the vice president and the prime minister: Modern and secure residential facilities for the vice president and the prime minister are proposed to the north of North Block and south of South Block respectively.
- Ensuring environmental sustainability, protecting heritage, expanding public space, and extending the central vista axis: The overall objective of works planned on the Central Vista is to ensure environmental sustainability, restore the vista’s architectural character, protect its heritage buildings, expand and improve public space, and to extend its axis.
There are allegations that the project is destroying Delhi’s age-old culture. How true is that?
This is absolutely false. We are very mindful of the heritage character of Central Vista and the very important role that it plays in defining India. If anything, this project is aimed at addressing the many decades of neglect of the vista’s buildings and urban elements and restoring them.
How do you deal with the criticism around the project? Do you think it’s justified?
We believe that a lack of adequate information about the project in the public domain has fuelled most of the criticism. This project is not unique. The tradition of effectively communicating information about public projects and policies is yet to develop in India.
We do not think that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the project. On account of the lack of adequate information, many people draw the opposite conclusions and end up spreading alarm. This is very unfortunate but there is very little that we can directly do to remedy the situation.
How do you think the future generations will take this revamp?
We are certain that future generations will appreciate that after years of neglect the problems that diminished the functional and architectural character of Central Vista were finally tackled. Future generations will also appreciate the creation of vast new facilities and amenities for the public and government functioning.
How involved is prime minister Narendra Modi with the project? Have there been any special demands from him?
Obviously, the prime minister is not involved in the details of the project. But his guidance is crucial to defining the overall character of the project. He wants the project to be clearly focused on functional problem solving and on ensuring that all the needs of diverse users are met. He wants the architecture to be modern while celebrating India’s rich traditions.
The project has got a lot of attention, not just in India but globally. Does that increase the pressure on you?
Working on such a project imposes a tremendous responsibility that we are mindful of. It is also very difficult to work on because of India’s unique diversity. We have people whose sensibilities, attitudes, or beliefs are avant-garde. We also have a vast section whose sensibilities are pre-modern. Our architecture has to speak to all of them.
Has the pandemic forced you to introduce any architectural changes?
No, the pandemic has not affected the design of the buildings.
Has the pandemic or the lockdowns impacted the speed of the project?
The pandemic impeded the pace of construction. However, completion deadlines have not been set back. All efforts are being made to catch up for the lost time.
How eco-friendly will the project be?
Careful considerations have gone into making all parts of the Central Vista project eco-friendly and energy-efficient. In addition to this, consolidation of the central secretariat will allow all government functionaries to share facilities and reduce wasteful duplication of infrastructure. Buildings will use energy-saving technologies and materials.
How different will the new prime minister’s residence be from the existing one?
The primary difference between the present and new residence for the prime minister will be its location. The new residence will be located near the new proposed prime minister’s office. On account of this, travel between the two will not disrupt city traffic as it does today. In all other regards, the present and new residences will be very similar.
How did you come up with the design of the new parliament?
We began by studying the present parliament building and the historical plans for it—which included rectangular and triangular options. We documented all the furniture and their arrangements and surveyed the additions and the modifications to the building over the years. We also studied expansion possibilities in the present building, given that the number of Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament) representatives are likely to increase after the freeze on its expansion is lifted in 2026.
The adjacent triangular plot was found to be the ideal location for a new building. Based on the shape of the plot and the functions the building has to house, it made sense to lay out the plan in a triangular form, which is a pure geometric form, as the circular form of the present building. The architecture of the new building is inspired by the present one. Its patterns and motifs are derived from the rich traditional arts and crafts of India.