A new Parliament: Supreme Court judgment giving go-ahead to Central Vista revamp is a missed opportunity


The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution called on Nandalal Bose to adorn its pages with illustrations that would capture the essence of the new republic. Bose’s choices were a mélange – mythical figures – Krishna, Arjuna, Rama, Sita; sovereigns – Ashoka, Akbar, Tipu Sultan, Shivaji; freedom fighters – Rani Laxmibai, Gandhiji, Netaji all found place alongside motifs from Ajanta, Mahabalipuram and Harappa and India’s natural endowments, its oceans and mountains. Yet Bose omitted representing the lives of ordinary Indians from his mélange – no hardworking farmers, brave soldiers or unnamed revolutionaries made it.

His vision was at once awe-inspiring – marvelling at the hallowed past of this supposedly new nation, and top-down – looking at India from the lens of its nobility. This is not to fault Bose’s choices. In fact, the new republic that came into existence in 1950 was in many ways a continuation of the old. Colonial ways of thinking about India as a space ruled by a succession of kings cannot overnight transform into a celebration of subaltern voices.

Similarly, symbols of colonial power do not, at the stroke of the midnight hour, become monuments of liberation. India’s appropriation of the buildings of empire in the Central Vista as its seat of power – the Viceroy’s House, Parliament House, North and South Blocks may have been pragmatic at the time. But architecturally, much like Bose’s illustrations, they inspire awe and pride, rather than freedom and equality, which animated the struggle for Independence.

Today, seven decades on, if a democratically elected government wants to transform this edifice, that act is not an erasure of history. Instead, it is the recognition of a sentiment that has taken seven decades to mature – India is no longer to be defined by colonial symbols that we have made our own. Those symbols will stand as testament to a chequered past, a lived history to be neither demolished nor appropriated, but to simply remain.

But what is the animating vision of the transformed edifice that will reflect this changed sentiment? Bimal Patel, chief architect of the Central Vista revamp project, is a skilled professional. In each of his presentations, he has underlined that the revamp will supplement the existing ethos of the vista and not supplant it. It will be a site that will be a “triumph of common sense”, through a “functional, simple, robust and quiet design”.

These are certainly attributes that any building ought to possess. But the Central Vista is more than a set of buildings and spaces. It is the representation of India itself, translating the idea from its becoming to its being. So while Patel may want India to be commonsensical, functional and simple, others may want it to be aggressive, strategic and punch above its weight. Some others, while agreeing with Patel, may also want India to be non-hierarchical, fair and just. Translating these characteristics into design requires time, consultation and an open mind.

In this context, the Supreme Court judgment giving the legal go-ahead to the Central Vista revamp is a missed opportunity. Pressing the ‘pause’ button on the project, as Justice Khanna has done in his dissenting opinion, would have provided an opportunity for everyone to reflect more deeply on an enterprise that will define India for some time to come. It is also what the law, on balance, demanded.

The case in the Supreme Court was fundamentally a plea for ‘democratic due process’ – greater openness in formulation, selection and development of the final design. Pitched at this level, democratic due process is a principle of political prudence, not of judicial review. The judges were right to defer to the executive on this question instead of creating another doctrine devoid of clear meaning.

But deference cannot mean a free pass. It is clear from the case record that the prior approval and permission of the Heritage Conservation Committee, needed under the law for land use to be changed, was not taken. Holding that strict approval is not needed since some members of the committee also sat on another committee which had approved the project, is a strange proposition of law laid down by the majority judges.

Equally strange is their upholding of the environmental clearance given only to the renovation and expansion of the Parliament building. As the dissent rightly notes, slicing up of the entire project into parts and allowing piecemeal environmental clearance requires cogent reasons to be provided. Not providing such reasons, especially in a matter that will increase pollution levels in the most polluted capital city in the world, is unacceptable.

His order, asking the government to apply for environment clearance and change of land use again before proceeding, much like Patel’s proposed design, is the triumph of common sense that the project needed. Even though it isn’t the law, one hopes that the wisdom of the dissent is internalised.

One will not have to travel far from Parliament to reach other grand structures built speedily to change the seat of power. Less than 20 km away lies Tughlaqabad Fort, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, moving his capital away from Lal Kot and Siri. Despite its grandeur, it remained the capital for only a few years and lies in ruins today. Currently it is best known for being a shooting range. Only with time, do things fall into place.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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