(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rebuilding part of New Delhi, but the mammoth undertaking is drawing fire because it’s estimated to cost billions at a time when the nation is grappling with a devastating coronavirus outbreak and the economic fallouts of local shutdowns.
The planned changes will cement Modi’s legacy in one of the world’s oldest cities by reconstructing central Delhi, which houses the legislature and other historical buildings. The project covers an area as large as 50 football fields. India will get a new parliament building. The present 94-year-old structure, built during British colonial rule, will become a museum. Open spaces are poised to be repurposed for government offices. While many details haven’t been announced, media reports have said a new prime minister’s residence is likely to be built. All of it is to be readied for 2024, when Modi faces federal elections for a third term.
The massive project — which local media have estimated could cost about 200 billion rupees ($2.7 billion) — has grown more controversial as India’s coronavirus cases have exploded. On social media, some questioned the need for spending on new government structures at a time when the nation is dealing with severe fallouts from the pandemic. One cartoon doing the rounds on Twitter depicted Indians without jobs, food and ambulances alongside a picture of Modi announcing a new parliament.
“The PM in his speeches since the pandemic broke, has repeatedly asked Indians to sacrifice — their time, job, lifestyle, their human and cultural tendencies to be gregarious,” Bengaluru-based historian Ramchandra Guha said via text message. “Now the citizens must ask the PM to sacrifice something for the nation as well. His project to redesign central vista was always controversial. It is now absolutely untenable. He should drop it. He still can and should.”
Spokespeople at the housing and urban affairs ministry and the prime minister’s office didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
In recent weeks, a fresh wave of the coronavirus has roiled India, leaving hospital beds, medicines and oxygen in short supply. Crematoriums are overrun, and India has reported several days of more than 300,000 new daily infections. Families are putting out desperate pleas on social media, begging for medicines and aid for relatives sickened with the virus. India has had more than 195,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, and its economy plunged into recession last year, leaving millions of daily wage earners and others without jobs.
Construction on the project has already begun in New Delhi, with cranes and building equipment blocking entire sections in the center of the capital city. The government has said the architectural revamp is necessary because of the age and deterioration of current buildings. When laying the foundation stone for the new triangle-shaped parliament building in December, the prime minister called it a “landmark opportunity to build a peoples’ parliament for the first time after Independence.” That hasn’t stemmed criticism from opposition parties, historians, architects, environmentalists and even former bureaucrats.
“Given the other needs of the economy right now, and the government’s strained fiscal situation, it does raise questions about the priorities of the government and whether the money could be better spent elsewhere,” Akhil Bery, Washington-based South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said via email. “Infrastructure is needed throughout India, and investing this money into roads and railways might be more beneficial, especially in the short-term.”
Delhi is a city that’s been plundered, conquered and rebuilt many times in the past. It’s borne witness to the rise and fall of age-old empires like the Tughlaqs and the Mughals. There are references to it in the 5,000-year-old ancient Hindu text Mahabharata. As a result, the planned changes have been evoking sharp emotions for months, even before the pandemic worsened in India.
Critics cast the project as an attempt to erase institutional memories and point to the absence of public discussions around repurposing the heritage buildings.
“It is ill thought out, the necessity of the project has not been established, the environmental clearances have been problematic,” said Anuj Srivastava, a former architect in the Indian Army’s Corps of Engineer, who filed a petition in the court against the project last year. “Nobody builds a new parliament unless you can’t re-purpose the old one, like the way Westminster is being restored and refurbished.”
The Supreme Court allowed the project to proceed, saying it didn’t violate environmental or land-use norms. However, one of the three judges on the panel expressed concern over the lack of public consultation before the project’s clearance.
There are also apprehensions that the new buildings will erase historical memories, which should be preserved to better understand the past even when it’s difficult, said Najaf Haider, a professor of history in Jawaharlal Nehru University. “These memorials are a great reminder of what happened in the past and by preserving those we are remembering both atrocities, survival and possibilities of future.”
Construction on the new parliament will continue during the lockdown announced by the Delhi government, the Hindu newspaper reported on April 19.
While the existing parliament was initially used by the nation’s British rulers, it has witnessed landmark events such as the passionate debates around the framing of India’s constitution and the historic speech of the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, announcing India’s independence from the British in 1947.
Now, despite the mayhem caused by the pandemic, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party wants to leave its “stamp by constructing a new parliament building, redesigning the central vista which is sort of the heart of Indian powerdom,” said Manish Tewari, a member of parliament who is affiliated with the opposition Congress Party.
Part of the Modi government’s plan is to redevelop the central vista — a 3-kilometer stretch beginning from the president’s house, or Rashtrapati Bhawan, to war memorial India Gate — with 10 multi-story modern office complexes to provide more modern facilities for civil servants.
Current plans suggest that many open spaces around India Gate that are visited by thousands daily may no longer be accessible to the public. “We common mortals will have no reason to go there, as government offices replace the quiet spaces of art, history, performance, leisure,” Narayani Gupta, a Delhi-based historian said.
Modi’s government is also finalizing the future of other buildings built after India’s independence, such as Udyog Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, and Shastri Bhawan — which are decades old and house key ministries.
But the corner stone is the new parliament, which the government estimates will cost 9.7 billion rupees ($130 million). The aim is to complete it by 2022 in time to mark the 75th year of India’s Independence. The proposed building’s aesthetics will include references from the present parliament and the nation’s traditional arts and crafts, according to Indian architectural firm HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt., which is designing the Central Vista project. “The constitution hall and constitution gallery will symbolically and physically put the Indian People at the heart of our democracy,” the firm said in an email. Subterranean tunnels will connect the parliament building with the chambers of members of parliament.
The existing parliament, which cost 8.3 million rupees and has a circular perimeter and 144 columns, was conceived of about 100 years ago. In 1911, the British colonial rulers announced they were shifting the capital from the eastern state of Calcutta to Delhi — the seat of power for many rulers before them.
British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were roped in. Lutyens designed parts of the central vista in European classical architecture, with gigantic colonnades, cupolas and domes, while Baker brought in Indian architectural elements such as chattris (canopy-like structures), and jalis (latticed screens). After a wait of 20 years, in 1931, a new Delhi was finally unveiled. After independence India used the buildings for its government.
These days, India’s government is facing a variety of geopolitical and economic challenges that deserve greater attention, said Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. “It behooves Delhi to focus on building India’s military and economic capabilities, instead of seeking to rewrite history.”