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Is Modi out to destroy New Delhi?

4 May 2021

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

While campaigning for re-election in 2019, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi observed that he hadn’t been able to win over the ‘Lutyens world’, at the same time reminding voters that he was a man of the people, the son of a tea-seller rather than a member of the political, social and economic elite. The ‘Lutyens elite’, a group that Modi and his supporters also call the ‘Khan market gang’ – referring to a high-end shopping centre frequented by Delhi’s upper-middle classes – has become a pejorative shorthand, equivalent to the labels ‘metropolitan elite’ or ‘champagne socialist’.

Whether Modi’s regret was sincere hardly matters, as he substantially increased the majority held by his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, securing his position as one of the most powerful politicians in the country’s history. Free to interfere with the edifices that his opponents hold dear, he swiftly invited bids to redevelop the complex of buildings and public spaces designed by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in the early 20th century for New Delhi, the new capital of India – moved from Calcutta – and crowning glory of the British Empire.

The proposals that have been adopted involve constructing a new parliament and converting much of the existing central ministry buildings into a national museum, which, the project’s architect Bimal Patel of HCP Design, Planning and Management said last June in an online presentation could tell ‘the glorious story of how our nation was forged and the history and traditions it derives its strengths from’. All government ministries will be relocated and concentrated in a series of tall new secretariat buildings along the 3km-long Central Vista, or Rajpath (formerly Kingsway) which links the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s house, to India Gate, a memorial to Indian soldiers who died in the First World War. The retained buildings and landscaping along the Central Vista will be revamped, and there will be new homes for the prime minister and vice president. Patel promises better transportation both to and within the site, upgraded public realm and the improvement or replacement of buildings that are no longer suitable.

Visualisation of the 13 ministry buildings that will line the Rajpath in New Delhi in the Central Vista Redevelopment Plan by HCP Design, Planning and Management. Image: © HCP Design, Planning and Management

Visualisation of the 13 ministry buildings that will line the Rajpath in New Delhi in the Central Vista Redevelopment Plan by HCP Design, Planning and Management. Image: © HCP Design, Planning and Management

The original Lutyens complex was built less speedily – it took about 20 years – but it too was an attempt to project and consolidate authority. When New Delhi was inaugurated in 1931, the British colonial enterprise was already showing cracks; the shifting of the capital from Calcutta in 1911 was in part an attempt to escape the growing anti-colonialist movement in the eastern state of Bengal. Lutyens wanted to design a city to rival the grandest capitals of the Western world, with broad boulevards radiating from a series of landmarks, sprawling grounds, manicured lawns and buildings with classical proportions echoing the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Champs-Élysées. Rashtrapati Bhavan, then the Viceroy’s House, is among the world’s largest residences for a head of state, with 340 rooms and a central courtyard. At the same time, the architecture was a tribute to Indian aesthetic traditions – red and yellow sandstone reflected the Mughal architecture of the nearby walled city of Shahjahanabad, now Old Delhi, and domes and details picked up Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

Only 16 years later, thousands of Indians filled the terraces and grounds of Lutyens’ Delhi to celebrate the handover of these buildings to the new government of independent India. This former symbol of imperial power has become the stage upon which the theatre of Indian politics, such as the annual Republic Day parade, is played out, as well as being a tourist attraction.

An aerial view of New Delhi, c. 1930. Top left is the Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy’s, now the President’s House), top right is the parliament building and in the centre is the hexagonal site of the India Gate.

An aerial view of New Delhi, c. 1930. Top left is the Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy’s, now the President’s House), top right is the parliament building and in the centre is the hexagonal site of the India Gate. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modi’s intention to redesign this stage is ostensibly an effort at modernisation. The buildings, infrastructure and surrounding public spaces are in need of restoration and India’s growing population, it is argued, requires more parliamentary representatives, which the old structures supposedly can’t accommodate. In his online presentation, Patel asserted that incremental changes to the estate over the years have rendered it ‘disorderly and incoherent’. ‘The grand symmetry of Lutyens has been violated,’ he said, arguing that his designs will enhance the public space and that they are a ‘tribute to the Lutyens plan’ that will ‘strengthen, not diminish’ what the architect originally proposed, and that a line of trees will prevent the new buildings from disrupting the existing vista. Parking, infrastructure and security measures have encroached on public space, Patel says in the same presentation, and it’s unclear whether the buildings meet current seismic standards. ‘Over the decades, many people have demanded that the Central Vista is better administered, developed and maintained and that the heritage is protected. Now the government is acting on these demands.’

Patel is one of Modi’s preferred architects – his current projects include a major scheme around a temple in the prime minister’s constituency in Varanasi and overhaul of the Sabarmati Ashram founded by Gandhi in Gujarat, the state of which Modi was previously the chief minister. Patel’s appointment was therefore no surprise. Nonetheless, many feel that the process of developing the brief and selecting the project team was cloaked in secrecy. Several built environment professionals in the country say that the announcement of the plans in 2019 was the first they had heard of the project. There were hints of it in previous years, though – the previous Congress government applied for the Central Vista to be granted Unesco World Heritage status, but Modi withdrew the application when he came to office.

The prime minister has been criticised for pressing ahead with this $2.7 billion project that has little benefit to the country as a whole in the middle of a pandemic and is regarded by some as the ‘pursuit of grandeur’. In December, 69 former bureaucrats wrote an open letter of criticism: ‘We have a public health infrastructure crying out for investment of public resources that could benefit substantially from the kind of investment planned for the Central Vista project; yet, for the government it seems that this wasteful and unnecessary project must take precedence over social priorities like health and education.’

Opponents also argue that the design fails to honour the area’s architectural heritage and the sightlines designed by Lutyens, that alternatives such as refurbishing the Sansad Bhavan, the existing parliament building, have not been adequately considered, that tens of thousands of government employees coming in and out every day is an unnecessary burden on the local environment and infrastructure, not to mention a needless concentration of power. Earlier last year, 60 former civil servants wrote to the prime minister about the scheme’s environmental impact on ‘the lungs of the city’. ‘Constructing a large number of multi-storeyed office buildings in this open area will create congestion and irreversibly change and damage the environment.’ They added that the project would be an assault on the area’s architectural heritage, which is part of India’s cultural identity.

A.G. Krishna Menon, an architect, urban planner and conservation consultant based in Delhi, agrees. ‘Even though the British colonial government built them as the symbol of imperialism, these buildings have become transformed into a democratic, public space – hundreds of thousands of people go there to have picnics and enjoy themselves.’ The redevelopment, with its concentration of ministries and official residences, he argues, will transform the area into a highly securitised gated compound with CCTV and boundaries. ‘You won’t be able to loiter – you will be asked to move along,’ he says. Moreover, he believes the new buildings will completely change the visual experience. ‘But that’s an aesthetic opinion – the fact of the matter is that the government is following the law. They have invited objections, listened to them, and dismissed them, and now they can go ahead.’

HCP Design says its masterplan is continuously evolving in response to public objections. It insists the visual impact of the new buildings will be minimal and sympathetic and that it carried out extensive research before concluding that the existing parliament could not be retrofitted. It adds that the number of workers who will be relocated to the site will largely be counterbalanced by the offices that will be moved out, and that separate, secure VIP routes and underground transportation will ensure that the public can continue to access and enjoy the area. The construction process, it says, will be phased so it has a minimal impact.

In January this year, the supreme court gave the project the green light – subject to clearance by the Ministry of Environment. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project is to be completed by the 2024 general election – a symbol of the prime minister’s intention to turn his back on India’s colonial past and reshape the country around his conservative Hindu ethos. Tackling Lutyens’ legacy also has symbolic significance – diminishing the British legacy that many see as embodied in the values of India’s secular, liberal, English-speaking, often foreign-educated upper crust. It’s these very people that took the reins when the British were ousted and who continue to dominate the dynastic leadership of the opposition Congress party, the leadership of which the descendants of Nehru still cling on to. Nehru himself envisaged a nation that integrated the architectural ideas of Western modernism, commissioning French architect Le Corbusier to masterplan a new city, Chandigarh, the shared capital of the northern states of Punjab and Haryana. Modi’s architectural legacy will be the overhaul of the former colonial heart of India.

But Delhi is not just a product of the British: successive empires have held the city as its capital: from the Rajputs to the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughals, and each has left behind a layer of architecture and in doing so changed the complexion of the city and Indian society. ‘Heritage is heritage – and this government is against Islamic heritage, just as it’s against colonial heritage,’ Menon says. He describes the conspicuously neutral architecture of the new parliamentary and governmental buildings as ‘bland, banal utilitarian modernism’. With his current hold on India, Modi feels no need for overt symbolic displays in this very public and international context. Instead, he can afford to enjoy a victory of substance over style – emptying buildings of their purpose without demolishing them.

Lutyens’ original design envisaged a series of axial roads connecting significant landmarks – the Jaipur Column in the forecourt of the presidential residence is linked by the Rajpath to the India Gate. A road from what is now the parliament leads directly to what became Connaught Place, originally envisaged as the central business district. Beyond that is the historic heart of Old Delhi – including Jama Masjid, its main mosque; the Red Fort, which was the residence of the Mughal emperors; and St James’s Church, one of the oldest churches in the city. Along these axes significant governmental, media and banking institutions have since sprung up. ‘When you remove the function of the Parliament and relocate to a nearby site, it neutralises and undermines the political importance of that axis,’ argues K.T. Ravindran, the former head of urban design at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. HCP counters that the Sansad Bhavan became the seat of parliament only after independence and that the building itself will remain where it is, used in conjunction with the new structure just beside it. ‘There is no change in the structure of Lutyens’ development, and the axis is retained as it is.’

Ravindran adds, though, that the architectural plans need to be seen in their wider political context. Modi’s intention, he says, is to create a new axis along which India Gate connects to the Akshardham Hindu temple constructed in 2005, via a new park and monument by the Yamuna river that the government has proposed but not yet defined. He concludes: ‘In the connection between the parliament, India gate and the temple’s dome, you have the recipe for a new symbolic alignment between political power, the military establishment and the religious establishment. This is the underpinning of the new India.’

Editorial note: this article was sent to press on 19 April 2021. 

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here