Earlier this month, when the second wave of Covid-19 had dug its claws deep into Delhi and thousands were falling ill, running from one hospital to another seeking oxygen and medical care, the government of India set a deadline for an ‘essential service’? The grand new home for the Prime Minister was to be completed by December 2022, reported NDTV. This is part of the grand Central Vista Redevelopment Project, which is still underway, even though ‘no photography’ signs have been put up, clearly to keep away the media, as the city remains under lockdown because Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage.
Most activities, including construction etc have effectively been halted. However this vast ₹ 20,000 crore e Central Vista Redevelopment Project, has designated an “essential service” and construction work here goes on, even as the Covid-hit national capital still awaits enough vaccine doses to inoculate its adult population.
Activists, academicians, art historians, and Opposition leaders have once again raised their voices against this ‘vanity’ project and urged the government pause, or scrap this plan which clearly does not seem “essential” when the health infrastructure seems to be in a fragile condition. Reportedly, the “projected cost for the new buildings is 13,450 crore rupees.” It is likely to change not just the visual, but also the essence of the iconic stretch of road that holds a special place in the hearts of all those who have lived, or even visited Delhi. It is beyond a tourist stop over, and for decades, was once the hub, especially in the evenings for families to congregate on the vast lawns, or walk up to hill leading to the regal Rashtrapati Bhawan or Presidential Palace, and on January 26 watch the Republic Day parade, live or on TV. This was the essence of ‘New Delhi’ recognised all over the world.
However, after security concerns rendered most of these places out of bounds for the common public, it is the re-development work that has been most shocking, especially its timing in the middle of the pandemic. As reported by the art news site Hyperallergic.com, the project will mean the “demolition and relocation of iconic Indian institutions: the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe.”
This has once again led to around 100 historians, artists, academics, and museum professionals to issue a statement seeking “an immediate halt” to the project. They say the project is “moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives.” The group has also drawn “particular attention to the upcoming demolition and relocation of the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe.” They say that when these buildings, and area were first planned, “there was a clear logic in the urban planning of Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival and historical centres in close proximity to each other. The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not demolition. The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irrevocable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built over decades.”
The Central Vista demolition also “threatens the collections of these heritage repositories,” and the signatories have expressed their concerns “that such a shift would impact the state of conservation of several objects. Even under normal circumstances, it would be a complex and risky operation to shift the diverse and irreplaceable treasures of the National Museum, the archival records held in the National Archives, and the manuscript holdings of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The current pandemic only exacerbates these risks.”
They added that “unilateral and hasty implementation of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project runs contrary to established practices worldwide. Across the globe, such plans to expand, relocate, repurpose or redesign key cultural institutions are preceded by widespread consultations and consensus building before finalizing the design, let alone moving collections indefinitely.” The letter also highlights the lack of transparency stating that “the details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque. It is unclear, for example, how the National Museum art objects will be stored and eventually displayed in the office complex of the North and South Blocks, as is planned. As the National Museum’s collection still lacks a complete inventory of its holdings, this relocation is hazardous. The extent to which these collections will continue to be publicly accessible is also unknown.”
They say that due to the escalating health crisis it is right to “pause and a reset” and that the “this project should be immediately suspended,” even for a short term, so “all priorities and resources directed to combating the pandemic”. However, in the long term, they say that there should be “extensive public consultations so that the future of India’s institutions, heritage architecture, and historical collections can be determined through a democratic process.”
The signatories includes subject experts such as: Naman Ahuja, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Ernst van Alphen, Leiden University; Sean Anderson, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Arjun Appadurai, New York University; Catherine Asher, University of Minnesota (emerita); Frederick M. Asher, University of Minnesota (emeritus); Rohit De, Yale University; Sussan Babaie, Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Homi Bhabha, Harvard University; Sugata Bose, Harvard University. Artists Arpana Caur, G. M. Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Dayanita Singh, Vivan Sundaram, Sir Anish Kapoor; Architect Prem Chandavarkar; art historians Annapurna Garimella, Narayani Gupta, Navina Najat Haidar. Writers, Orhan Pamuk, Githa Hariharan, Ramachandra Guha, Geeta Kapur, Filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen and many others.
Hyperallergic reports from a CNN interview of Bimal Patel of HCP, the architectural firm chosen for the redevelopment, calling the project “a much-needed overhaul of facilities unfit to meet growing needs”. Patel said, “We need space for dining, we need to create toilets, we need to create storage space, and office and administration space — it’s very clear that it can’t be done in the space available.” Author and urban historian Narayani Gupta, who lives in Delhi told Hyperallergic, “Now you’ll have this landscape of three official houses, two secretariats which will be turned into museums, and then a series of extremely dull buildings going right up to the War Memorial Arch… there is a kind of ring of security that will take away from the sense of it being a public space — the green lawns, the trees, the informal spaces that were created, and which the people created.”