Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

PM's 'Vanity Project', Environmental Concerns: The Many Controversies, Myths About Central Vista

PM's 'Vanity Project', Environmental Concerns: The Many Controversies, Myths About Central Vista

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to inaugurate the revamped Central Vista Avenue stretching from Vijay Chowk to India Gate after two years of construction which was shrouded in controversies.

Blueprint of the Central Vista Project in Delhi
Blueprint of the Central Vista Project in Delhi

After nearly two years of construction and controversies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to inaugurate the revamped Central Vista Avenue stretching from Vijay Chowk to India Gate. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project is nearing completion ahead of the winter session of Parliament. The inaugural function is scheduled to be held at the C-Hexagon. A large number of VVIPs and invitees are expected to attend the function.

The redevelopment project of the Central Vista, the nation's power corridor, envisages a new triangular Parliament building, a common central secretariat, revamping of the three-kilometer Rajpath boulevard that stretches from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate, a new prime minister's residence and a new Prime Minister’s Office as well as a new Vice President's Enclave. In December 2020, PM Modi laid the foundation stone of the new Parliament building, which will have modern facilities. 

The construction, which began in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 amid widespread criticism, was completed at a breakneck speed in keeping with the October 2022 deadline. Since the inception of the project, however, the Central Vistran project has been shrouded in controversies and the union government has faced repeated objections and questions regarding what many touted as the PM's "vanity project". 

Here are some of the controversies that have dogged the Central Vista project:

1. PM's Vanity Project

In 2020 when the Central Vista project was first announced, Opposition leaders and critics of the BJP government attacked PM Modi for embarking on a "vanity project" at a time when the country was grappling with multiple problems including the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers protests, economic recession and high unemployment. Following an address on Indian democracy by the PM at the time, Opposition leaders accused the him of "hypocrisy" and of building a "palace" for himself on the "ruins" of India's democracy. In a virulent attack, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala had tweeted, "Modi ji, history will record that when lakhs of farmers were fighting on the streets for their rights, you were building a palace for yourself in the garb of Central Vista project. In a democracy, power is not for fulfilling personal whims but a medium of public service and welfare.” The Congress even ran a social media campaign against the project.

2. Central Vista Construction flouting Covid-19 protocols

In 2021 when the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was ravaging Delhi, construction work for Central Vista continued with the government terming it an "essential service", leading critics to question whether the government was complying with Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. The government had maintained that workers employed at the construction site were staying on site and not travelling back and forth. Other protocols such as the stringent wearing of masks, sanitization and thermal screening were also being conducted and the government had assured arrangements for testing, medical aid, and isolation as well as medical health insurance for workers (provided by contractors) in the event someone fell ill.

Several ground reports including one by The Quint and Scroll had found discrepancies in the following of Covid-19 protocols on the ground. The matter even reached courts but the Delhi High Court refused to stay the construction. as it found it to be in compliance with Covid-19 protocols. The petitioners were instead charged Rs 1 lakh. The Delhi HC decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court as well.

3. Questions on project expenditure amid pandemic stress

The cost of the Central Vista project has also been a source of acrimony for the Centre which has often had to defend questions and accusations by the Opposition regarding how much money is being spent on the redevelopment of the high-profile neighbourhoods.

The opposition had claimed that Rs 20,000 crore is being spent on the project this year during the Covid-19 pandemic. The claim was countered by the Union minister for housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri in 2021 who said that the redevelopment plan was envisaged in 2019, many months before the outbreak of the pandemic, and it is a generational infrastructure investment project, involving multiple projects spread over six years. It also said that Rs 20,000 crore is the gross rough estimate of all the planned development/redevelopment works.

The Centre had also rubbished the reports that Rs 13,450 crore is being incurred on new house for Prime Minister. The estimate includes multiple projects, including 10 buildings, the ministry said, adding that the construction work for the Prime Minister's residence has not yet been tendered and no sanction has been accorded by the government. "The cost for the PM’s residential complex has been mischievously exaggerated in media," the ministry said.

Budget 22-23 allocated an amount of Rs 2,600 crore for the construction of non-residential office buildings of the ambitious Central Vista project, including the Parliament as well as the Supreme Court of India. The amount is Rs 767.56 crore more than Rs 1,833.43 crore which was given in the last financial year.

4. Environmental concerns 

The central vista project has also come under attack for allegedly being in contradiction to the environmental policies of the government. 

Under a policy notified by the government in December 2020, agencies concerned are required to transplant a minimum of 80 per cent of the trees affected by their development works. The benchmark tree survival rate at the end of one year of tree transplantation is 80 per cent. The Delhi State Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC), which vets the proposals before they are sent to SEIAA, had raised concern over the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) which is the main proponent in the project, for its plan to remove an “excessively high proportion” of trees from the site. The CPWD later revised the proposal, decreasing the number of trees to be transplanted from 630 to 487 and increasing the number of trees to be retained at the site from 154 to 320, as per reports in August.

In June, the Delhi State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) granted the environmental clearance for the construction of the “Executive Enclave” as part of the Central Vista redevelopment plan. Reports, however, state that the part of Central Vista meant for the revamped PMO awaits green clearance.

5. Damage to heritage buildings

There were also widespread concerns regarding the damage that the Central Vista project will cause to existing heritage buildings in the Raisina Hill area. The ministry, however, clarified last year that none of the heritage buildings – India Gate, Parliament, North & South Blocks, National Archives or any other - will be demolished. "While these heritage buildings retain their architectural majesty, they are under severe stress and in need of comprehensive upgradation. Therefore, the heritage buildings that fall under the scope of the Central Vista development/redevelopment project will be appropriately retrofitted, as per Heritage Conservation standards, and refurbished for their future use," it added.


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