Friday, May 27, 2022

To Build Or Not To Build, That Is The Question

The cost of the Central Vista project is Rs 20,000 crore, which with the government’s total annual tax revenue of 20 lakh crore works out to only 0.25 per cent of the tax revenue every year.

To Build Or Not To Build, That Is The Question
The new Parliament will cost Rs 971 cr (US$ 133 million) File photo

India’s population has increased four times from 34 crore in 1947 to 139 crore in 2020. The number of ministries in the Central government has also increased from 18 to 51 and the number of government employees has risen from a single figure in lakhs to 66 lakh with 52 lakh pensioners. The size of Parliament in contrast has gone up from 705 members in both the houses put together in 1952 to only 772 in 2021- a rather modest increase of 9.5 per cent in over 7 decades. Whereas, in these ensuing decades post independence, the sheer scale of the government, the myriad pleasant and much more unpleasant ways in which it impacts a citizen’s life and the legislative complexity in managing the affairs of a diverse country has all but multiplied. The physical infrastructure of the country in the last seven decades has grown multi-fold and yet successive Central governments wedded to some vague romanticised notion of history or perhaps paralysed by inertia have not added a single square foot to the Central vista. Not even planned for it on the drawing board. Administrative needs and governance be damned.

The size of our Parliament by all world standards is too small. A constituency with 25-40 lakh voters can barely hold its MP accountable. Compare it with say the British whose Westminster model we have copied. With only seven crore people, the British Parliament has about 630 (elected) members of the House of Commons representing less than seven crore people (5% of India). The number of parliamentarians in India is decided by the delimitation commission and in the past, four commissions in 1952, 1963, 1973, and 2002 sat and fixed the number. Come 2026 another commission is scheduled to sit and by 2031 a bigger parliament of at least 800 plus Lok Sabha members if not more is likely to be constituted. So when should India plan for it, if not now? Left to constantly fractious culture of discourse we have developed in India which does not allow anything to be done or built, the new parliament may have to hold its first session in the tents!

The present secretariat has only 22 of the 51 ministries while the rest are spread across Delhi. Besides better and swifter coordination, coming closer and under one roof opens up tremendous possibilities of centralised housekeeping, IT, logistics, and eventual cutting down of wastage and peon/clerk flab.

Another misconception, thick on rhetoric and thin on facts spread by the systematic campaign is as if the old buildings are all going to be demolished. The fact however is that there are three categories of old buildings: First, old historical ones like the Parliament House, North and South Block, which will be retained and repurposed. Second, the new ones like the new parliament house, Combined Central secretariat, SPG Complex, PM and vice-president residences will be built alongside and third, some buildings which will indeed be demolished. Now it is no one's case that the buildings like Krishi Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Raksha Bhavan, Shastri Bhawan, Udyog Bhavan, IGNCA annex built in post-independent India are great aesthetic marvels. Most are disjointed PWD constructed products of their times which in today’s work environment are costly to maintain, not amenable to ideal fitments required in modern intelligent buildings.

The new Parliament will cost Rs 971 cr (US$ 133 million) against the various fantastic figures quoted. The work is being done by the blue blood of the Indian Infra world like Tatas and Shapoorji Pallonji’s. The total cost of the entire Central Vista spread over 4 years is Rs 20,000 cr which with the Government’s total annual tax revenue of 20 lakh crore works out to only 0.25% of the tax revenue every year. Not an earth-shattering and criminal profligacy as many commentators will like us to believe.

The argument then proffered is that with Pandemic, is it really the right time to continue with construction? In the medieval period, without the support of Economists and fancy economic models, even the unelected kings and Nawabs realised the wisdom of spending money on public works during famines and pandemics in order to create much-needed employment, pump some money in the system and create a multiplier effect while building a needed asset for the country. All prosperous nations today are bloating their balance sheets by liberal public spends and liquidity easing. So what are these “criticise for criticism sake” analysts implying- stop all public spending and deepen the economic activity draught further. If that be so , which other projects should be stopped. A few roads and rails maybe, some housing. Who will decide as to which one? Let the creaking wheels of whatever little is being built come to a halt and let the economic crises deepen. Is that what we are proposing?

They then tell us that the money is better spent on health care. True it is but the problem of fighting the pandemic is not of money, but of capacities-trained docs, hospital beds, equipment et al and these can not be bought overnight by throwing money at the problem but built only over time. These without doubt should be built with utmost urgency but where is the conflict with building infrastructure. If the mindset is to halt Government functioning and the public work for strange sentimental reasons and reason driven by hostility to the present regime, then we better be prepared for a moribund economy and a general decay.

The old buildings were made in the times when cars were a rare luxury and Metro was not even conceived. Today the commercial and Government hubs have to be seamlessly connected with Transportation. Going forward, the Proposed Central vista will connect yellow and violet lines of Metro thereby removing the need to bring in coaches and small car hordes of Government officers and employees who come and park haplessly into the secretariat. We marvel at the Transit-oriented development (TOD) of airports and City centres and go gush-gush about it from our overseas visits, but come home and we want to continue with archaic and dysfunctional urban layouts. A planned TOD in the long run cuts dependence on hydro-carbon burning in cars and has continued environmental benefit than a few trees which have to be cut. These in any case are replanted elsewhere in many multiple under the compensatory afforestation scheme.

A careful analysis of the plans and layouts of Central vista shows wide footpaths, pedestrian underpasses, bridges over canals, benches, trees and more green areas with provisions for modern conveniences. The whole of old and North-East Delhi, bereft historically of open spaces gathers around this area in the evenings with no facilities to speak of. It is a legitimate question to ask in last 7 decades in the name of trees, environment, heritage what prevented you to build basic facilities for the families wanting to enjoy the open green spaces?

The commonest refrain of the chattering middle class in India is the lack of transparency and corruption. Well, at times very rightly so. Now, the Indian urban space story is replete with instances where foreign architects were nominated by the Prime Ministers to develop cities, iconic buildings, bridges etc., and this was most pronounced during Pandit Nehru’s time. Chandigarh was built by French Le Corbusier. New Capital of Orissa Bhubneshwar by German Town planner and architect Otto Konigsberger. Durgapur was designed by two American architects Joseph Allen Stein and Benjamin Polk. The famed Stein also built the iconic India International centre and India Habitat Centre. The list can go on and on and it would be fair to say that the results have been very good when one compares them with the general unplanned urban chaos which otherwise defines India. But today’s India is one of the scandals, divisions and loud debates where to build anything worthwhile is both an administrative nightmare and a political impossibility.

Examination of the process followed to design and build the Central Vista Project shows that the criteria for the competition were set by the Council of Architecture, which included that no building would tower over the India Gate. The project was bid by half a dozen renowned design and architectural firms and Bimal Patel led HCP Design Planning and Management won the bid. Now the fact that he is from Gujrat also became a point of constant discussion and rumour-mongering. Well, the time will judge the work which Bimal Patel produces but the naysayers have already denounced the baby as ugly even before it is even born. So much for objectivity and keeping one's prejudices at bay.

Anyhow, the project proponent or client took conceptual approval from the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC). Financial decisions were cleared by the Central Vigilance Commission. Monetary allocation was provided by the Finance Ministry. Project assessment studies were done by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and then finally the sanction was given by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) to commence tendering and works. That two different legal challenges were heard by the Honourable Supreme Court and the Delhi High court and rejected is also not enough to satisfy the critics.

Now with all this, if the argument is that all these bodies are compromised, then we might as well write ourselves off as a country and embrace the argument that those bleeding hearts shouting in the TV studios and pouring their hearts out on what’s app university are the only repositories of wisdom left to run the country.

It is apparent that the criticism of the Central Vista project is not on facts and necessity but on all kinds of arguments based on timing, nostalgia, morality, environment, birds, trees, aesthetics and what rant suits you the best. In the similar vein of one one-sided discourse, it was called by a commentator as a “heartless” building. Ironic as on rebound it suggests as if the buildings built by our exploiting colonial masters were pieces of great “compassion” on the servile nation.

(The author is an Ex IPS officer and a technology entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)