New Rajpath for the Republic: Clear air over hush-hush architectural project that will redraw ties between state and people

The 2020s will see India turning 75 and contemplate many changes. One of them will cut right through the national capital’s Central Vista: the axis that unites the government with the people. The Rajpath or Central Vista Redevelopment Project will be undertaken by an architectural firm from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, that has been picked ahead of five others.

But what HCP Design Planning and Management intends to do with the Central Vista is not entirely known. From the tattle that trickles out from the innards of government it is said that Lutyens and Baker’s signatures in sandstone like the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House, North and South Blocks will be extensively modified to suit a purpose different from which they serve today. Worryingly, next to nothing is known about the prospects of two other jewels bequeathed to independent India: the National Archives building and the National Museum. And what is not known can hardly spark debate.

In almost all democracies an attempt to refashion the very ‘axis’ of the state’s relationship to its people would have been preceded by extensive public consultations. Some, in elite and by definition closed circles, have asked questions of the government. But because the conversation has not left the room we don’t know if the government felt sufficiently obliged to answer fully or even present the full facts.

Today’s Rajpath is a veritable stomping fairground for protest, a stage for celebration and a drawing room for play. The thought that ‘We the People’ may be excommunicated from the process that  will alter our fairground, stage and drawing room all at once is soul destroying.

Architecture is high art: the physical manifestation of a society’s cultural, political and spiritual mores. The Central Vista is no longer just some grand ceremonial area in the heart of Delhi. It has come to become the Commons: land belonging to the community of ethnicities, languages, cultures that are India.

In 1913, the Kingsway (Rajpath today) was not built to speak for the aspirations of a free people. Kingsway originates from the commanding heights of Raisina Hill that was itself caparisoned by the Viceregal palace. From within this ‘Vatican’ of imperial power the unelected Viceroy flanked by offices festooned with the regalia of the Raj (Viceregal Seal, British Royal Coat of Arms and obelisks commemorating British acquisitions) could gaze at the other monuments glorifying British bravura: India Gate and Victoria Memorial.

Standing between the cloister of administrative buildings that make up South Block, the Parliament House is not even visible. Set to the side, it was a sandstone snub to the need to be accountable to the people of India. Nothing brings out the snub more than when Lutyens’ Central Vista is contrasted to the layout of the Washington Mall in the United States of America. On this iconic vista in the heart of Washington DC it’s the Capitol (seat of American democracy) that enjoys pride of place. The Mall, conceived much before Kingsway in Delhi, was always meant to be an ode to freedom and aspiration.

After Independence the Central Vista was set to change. Inherently ‘Indian’ motifs like the Ashoka Chakra, Sarnath lions and others began to replace the signatures of the Raj. These new embellishments along with the exotic Chajjas and Chhatris completed the indigenisation of Raisina. A few decades after Independence the Central Vista itself saw many new constructions to house ministries and other buildings, ostensibly predicated to the service of Indian democracy.

Admittedly these new constructions presented a break in Lutyens’ architectural congruity but perhaps their ordinariness only further cemented Rajpath’s accessibility in the public’s eye. That the people have appropriated this hallowed ground for themselves is as much a testament to their tenacity as it is the government’s commitment to republicanism.

As India embraced democracy and the people their right to hold their leaders to account, the people have chosen to overrun and sometimes even occupy Rajpath to make their grievances visible. Some of the greatest social justice movements in India’s history have culminated or originated in these lawns dotted by trees and reflecting pools. What is once earned is not easily surrendered. Today, on any given evening, Rajpath’s verges are lined with pop up eateries, ice-cream carts, picnickers, performers and debating societies.

But if whispers from informed circles are true all this could be a thing of the past. The entire Central Vista and its immediate environs will soon be turned into India’s largest city-centred construction zone. That by itself will disrupt life in the capital on an unprecedented scale. Consider, for one, the toxic impact on the air posed by thousands of trucks that will pour into the city every night bearing construction material.

Beyond this temporary trauma the construction itself may congest the ‘lungs’ of the inner city making it unlivable. If not knowing how this intervention is going to change our lives is bad, then not knowing how the designers are intending to represent us is even worse.

Will the design of a new Rajpath deviate from the inherent architectural plurality that defines India? If it does, which tradition or culture will it exemplify? Will its layout ‘other’ the people of India by increasing the distance between the elected and the elector? This column hopes to start the debate and elicit some answers.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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