In a webinar on 27 June 2020 hosted by Acedge, Bimal Patel was in conversation with Naresh Narasimhan and Vijay Narnapatti. As expected, a large part of the conversation centred on the Central Vista Redevelopment proposed by HCP Design, the firm Bimal heads. Vijay raised a question that he attributed to me (I have raised it in some pieces I have written, and privately messaged it to a couple of people).
The question was this: The changes of land-use that have been publicly notified by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), spring from HCP’s design, and take over 80 acres of land out of public or semi-public use, changing it to exclusive use by the government; so how does this gel with the public nature of the project?
Bimal responded that this was wordplay designed to mislead by projecting only one side of the issue without looking at the total picture. He said that if people look at land that has been taken out of public use for the project, they should also look at land that was out of public use which has been now added into public use and make an overall assessment. He mentioned the portion of the President’s Estate that was secluded from the public that is now being made into a public arboretum and biodiversity park. He mentioned that the site allocated in his design to a new parliament building may be zoned as a district park, but has never been used as one, and has for years housed functions like car parking and security barracks. He dismissed the question as disingenuous and unworthy of consideration.
Since this response was uttered in a public forum, it requires a public rejoinder, and hence this post. I note:
Bimal asks us to make a comprehensive assessment. But there has been no disclosure of plans, area statements, costs, and other crucial data placed in a public repository that allows us to scrutinise the data carefully and come to an informed assessment. In the absence of this, we can only review the few pieces that are in the public domain, such as the DDA’s Change-of-Land-Use Notification. Thus far, we have heard no public commitment to disclose data on the project.
The new arboretum and biodiversity park that will be carved out of the President’s Estate will be entered from Mother Teresa Crescent (formerly Willingdon Crescent), that lies to the west of Rashtrapati Bhavan, whereas Central Vista lies to the east. It will not feel a part of Central Vista as it has no spatial or visual continuity with it. Given that Central Vista is currently a beloved public landscape, the data on percentage of public use before and after the redevelopment should be disclosed and assessed separately.
It is true that the district park that has been taken over to make the new parliament building has not been used as a park for decades. Is this sufficient reason to appropriate it for government use? This decision should be based on established good practice in heritage conservation. A rigorous heritage audit should have been done of the current parliament building to assess its adaptability to changing needs. Given that heritage is a matter of public memory, such an audit should pass democratic scrutiny and debate before it is finalised. Only after this should the assessment be made on whether a new parliament building is needed. The potential of reviving the original intent of a district park should be a part of this audit. To date, no such audit has been placed in the public domain, leading us to conclude that it has not happened. Thus, the decision to appropriate the district park for government use is a ratification of bad practice merely on the ground that it has happened already.
To expect us to accept that the public character of Central Vista is enhanced in the redevelopment, without putting data on the table, is the ultimate wordplay.
Statements made on public land uses in the redevelopment project contradict the DDA’s notification on land use changes. It has been claimed that North Block and South Block will be made into the new National Museum. The DDA notification retains this as “High-Security Government Use”. It has been claimed that the National Archives (a listed Grade-1 heritage monument) will be preserved as the National Archives and only improved upon. The DDA notification changes the land-use on this parcel from “Public/Semi-Public” to “Government Use”. In the discussion, Bimal was asked to confirm that the government has accepted the conversion of North and South Blocks into the National Museum. He did not answer the question directly, only saying he has made several presentations to government where this is a part of the proposal, and nobody has contradicted him. Given the contradiction between HCP’s pronouncements and DDA legal notifications, one is driven to fear that this ambiguity will be allowed to remain, so that public concern is mitigated by HCP’s pronouncements, and when these are finally contradicted, the rest of the project will have become a fait accompli. In the public interest, this ambiguity must be urgently dispelled.
I take this opportunity to raise some further questions that I feel Bimal must answer:
This is a public project that changes the spatial epicentre of India’s democracy, and therefore should proceed by the highest democratic principles. There has been no debate in parliament on the project. Contradicting customary practice, there is no oversight by a Joint Parliamentary Committee over the project. Most importantly (and this is where Bimal gets involved), there have been no public consultations in the true sense of the word. Being a project that affects our democracy, there are issues involved that are beyond the scope of urban and architectural design, so the government should spearhead the consultation, with the architect as a part of the team making the public presentations. Any consultation should place all data on the project in the public realm so that informed comment can take place. The consultation should be advertised in major newspapers and social media, giving adequate prior notice. Given its national significance, there should be multiple consultations across the country, held in local languages as well. There should be an established mechanism for receiving and responding to public comments. This has not happened at all. The government has sought to pass off some presentations made by Bimal as public consultations, even though these have been made to selective audiences, and there has been no prior or consequent disclosure of data for public review. Bimal has become complicit in this process. He acknowledged in the discussion that public review and comment is healthy and required but should clarify his statements further on what constitutes true public consultation and the ethical stance he takes on it.
Vijay raised a question on whether the design was based on an adequate brief. Bimal answered that in complex projects the brief is substantively shaped by the early stages of design process, and there is nothing wrong in starting design with a very approximate design brief. Vijay noted that there is a difference between a design brief and a space programme (the list of functions and areas that must be accommodated in the design). Bimal responded that he did not understand what Vijay meant by the difference between the two. Unfortunately, the conversation spontaneously diverged into different directions and this clarification was not articulated; let me attempt it here. A design brief is a vision for the project, and both space programme and design must be shaped by this vision. On a project like this, the vision would relate to our democratic ideals, the relationship between government and the people, what aspirations regarding this relationship the project should convey, and the heritage value of the site. None of this was articulated in the design brief, and architects competing for the project were asked to offer their interpretations on these issues. Democratic ideals can only be resolved through democratic processes. The vision in the design brief that drove the project should have come from a process of democratic scrutiny and debate. Similarly, the design should also be subjected to such scrutiny and debate. In the absence of this, an architect has been granted the authority to be a privileged interpreter of democracy and heritage. Given we are a democracy, the public is owed an explanation on the validity of granting such authority.
Bimal was asked why the speed in implementing the project, especially given the current imperatives of dealing with a global pandemic and the consequent economic recession. He responded that speed is a sign of the times, and many clients are demanding such speed. He noted that Parliament and the Central Secretariat are currently working in conditions that are far from ideal, and it is in the interests of the nation to quickly enhance their efficiency through better working conditions. He argued that the project will be a useful stimulus of spending and job creation in a recession. Therefore, his job as a professional is only to review whether the deadlines are doable or not, and given his conclusion that they are doable, he is obliged to support the speed. An unaddressed question is that the speed being called for does not facilitate the kind of democratic consultations described above. This is a costly sacrifice to make and will be a dangerous precedent that could entail further compromises of democracy in times to come. The question of speed must be evaluated and justified on this count.
In his earlier presentation to the Maharashtra Association of Schools of Architecture (MASA), Bimal had claimed that the development will have negligible environmental impact on the Central Vista as the total working population within the precinct will go only from 50,000 to 51,000; an increase of 2%. However, in drawings he showed in the same presentation (also published in LA Journal) which compare current conditions and the conditions after the redevelopment, the increase in built areas looks to be far above 2%. The drawings did not contain any area statements. Data on built up areas before and after the redevelopment is information that needs to be placed in the public domain.
In the MASA presentation, Bimal declared that the Central Vista Redevelopment is a “Transit-Oriented-Development” (TOD). This term can have two interpretations. It can have a general interpretation that only refers to a project that uses its proximity to mass transit. But since this project falls under the jurisdiction of the Master Plan of Delhi – 2021 (MPD2021), one must also take into account a legal definition of the term in the master plan where higher built areas are permitted in TOD schemes. This is significant because MPD2021 earlier stated, in multiple paragraphs, that Central Vista was outside the purview of TOD and could not claim these higher built areas; but modifications have recently been proposed where many paragraphs placing Central Vista outside TOD purview have been deleted. HCP should clarify what their interpretation of TOD is and disclose data on the ratio of built up area to site area, before and after the redevelopment.
In the MASA presentation, Bimal noted that Central Vista will still feel like a public landscape because the buildings are set so far back from the road that the parapets of the building will not be seen above the treeline. He showed a cross-section of Rajpath in the presentation to demonstrate this. The line of sight delineated in this cross-section assumed a person standing in the middle of Rajpath – an unlikely occurrence given this is a busy vehicular road. Pedestrian presence will be off-centre and will also be on the Boat Club Lawns where you are in a position to look through the tree trunks, below the leafy growth of the trees, and perceive the buildings beyond. A conclusion cannot be drawn from a single cross-section. More data from multiple viewpoints must be shown.