IN April this year, when the country was battling a novel virus, the entire population was ordered into a lockdown, the engines that drive economy had come to a halt and no viable solution was apparent about how to reboot the economy, officers in the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry were fast-tracking its approval of a grandiose Rs 20,000-crore proposal — a new Parliament building, a Central Secretariat complex to house 70,000 Central government employees, redevelopment of the Central Vista, a stately PM’s house-cum-office and the Vice-President’s residence. That the approval was hurriedly accorded at an online meeting of the officials alone in the absence of expertise from architects and town planners, points to the urgency that the government attaches to the plan.
While some changes might be necessary, it all seems an untimely and a reckless step. Apart from the financial constraints, the country will be sadly deprived of its history and the monuments that speak of our past.
The Palace of Westminster, the seat of British Parliament, was built 150 years ago, incorporating many parts of the old building that survived a major fire in 1834. The Reichstag Building in Berlin was built in 1894 and refurbished in 1990. The US Capitol Building in Washington DC was built in 1800. These age-old structures are a witness to the histories of their nations.
The Indian Parliament House, likewise, is not just another building. It represents the country’s persona. Though built by the imperialist rulers, Sansad Bhawan, as it is now called, represents the best of Indian architecture and tradition. With its design, structure, inscriptions from scriptures and paintings depicting India through the ages, it is an intrinsic part of our history, a national symbol, and a living witness to India’s constitutional and legislative history.
The bracingly stunning Parliament House along with the South and North Blocks on the Raisina Hill are all set to be discarded for making room for museums. The reasons advanced for a new Parliament building is that the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha chambers will fall short of space when the number of MPs increases and that it has no offices for MPs and their research staff. The new mega project intends to raze all bhawans built after 1947 to house various ministries. Their demolition by implosion may be effected in a matter of seconds, but building a mammoth complex instead, coupled with the construction of temporary offices for a long interregnum and shifting of all records there, will be no easy task.
Before Independence, the Central Legislative Assembly, Council of State and the Princes met in three different chambers which now function as the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Members’ Reading Room, respectively. The semicircular and horse-shoe shaped chambers have coterminous inner and outer lobbies. On the first floor are the visitors’ galleries. The Central Hall, where India’s Constituent Assembly met on December 9, 1946, is significant for witnessing the momentous transfer of power and resonating with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech. The open circular verandah on the first floor of the building is an imposing colonnade. This, in symphony with other features, lends the circular Parliament House a unique charm of architectural accomplishment and visual delight.
Some modern, elegant buildings like the DRDO Bhawan, Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan or Vigyan Bhawan have been built in the past and an annexe added to the Parliament House estate. To meet the needs of a modern library, a standalone library building was built in 2006 with a tasteful banquet hall, reading rooms, and the Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training. Besides the Parliament area, many ministries have their own standalone buildings or function from joint complexes within the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area. It is impossible, even inadvisable, to club them altogether in one mammoth complex of offices.
To meet any future requirement of bigger chambers for the LS and RS, the Central Hall can be converted into the LS Chamber and the present LS Chamber can house the RS. This will require minimal alterations. A new Central Hall and MPs’ chambers can be built on the piece of land behind Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. A few ministers’ lounges in the main building itself can free over 70 rooms that remain unopened for 280 days in a year. The cost of these changes will be a fraction of the colossal Rs 20,000 crore earmarked for the new plan.
What is puzzling is another underlying agenda of the new plan: a majestic residence-cum-office for the Prime Minister. After the Teen Murti House, occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s first Prime Minister, there was no permanent PM’s residence. Rajiv Gandhi took up residence at 7, Race Course Road, which has since continued to be the PM House. The RCR, now renamed Lok Kalyan Marg (LKM), actually has five bungalows: two of these are the PM’s residence and office; the third is the PM’s guest house; fourth is with the Special Protection Group; and the fifth is used as a helipad for the PM.
These houses are by no means ostentatious, though like other Lutyens’ bungalows, they have large open spaces and vast, manicured lawns. To this, have been added two conference halls and an underground tunnel leading to Safdarjung Airport to avoid traffic hold-ups during the PM’s movement. Necessary refurbishments carried out from time to time lend LKM grace befitting the PM’s position, though by no means opulent. For the PM’s meetings with and banquets for visiting Heads of State, Hyderabad House provides a perfect venue.
Therefore, any plan to discard 7, LKM and spend an extraordinary amount on a new PM House, howsoever magnificent and imposing, across the Central Vista, would be imprudently extravagant. With some minor alterations and refurbishment, the whole of South Block can be used for the PMO and on the commissioning of the new Revenue Bhawan, the North Block can be cleared of all ‘temporary’ additions and alterations and restored to its pristine glory.
A functionary of the Ministry of Urban Affairs described the project as a representation of the ‘values and aspirations of a New India — good governance, efficiency, transparency, accountability and equity, and is rooted in the Indian culture and social milieu.’ This time, the task of spelling out the spirit of New India to be manifested by our own new grand Capitol has been left to an official and he has succinctly put across the idea, knowing well that for such ideal democratic values, the country does not have to wait for any new physical structures, but a firm resolve by those with whom the government authority vests.
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