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Uncomfortable query: Positivity in landscape of Heritage Architecture of Central Vista?

By Mansee Bal Bhargava*

For May 18, the World Museum Day, a tribute goes to the historical and heritage buildings of the country that are the living Museums apart from the designated Museums that archive the history, art, and culture of India. The existing 800 plus Museums in the country have not been that integral to the modern everyday living as it is in Europe and the US, where Museums are highly active public realms to emulate, archive and exchange evolution of civilization. 
Still, there are various types of Museums that have more acceptance than most in the country and are popular places visited for tourism and education besides research. There are also new kinds of Museums emerging in the country like the Conflict Museum, the Water Museums at Centre, States, and even virtual levels.This year, the World Museum Day is important in the history of Independent India in terms of challenge as well as opportunity. The challenge is that a central part of the capital city of India, known as the Lutyens Delhi, is to witness extensive demolition drive of the existing museums, historical, and heritage buildings that are not only iconic in architecture, but also sit on a heritage landscape, known as the Rajpath, that the country (even the world) relates as the capital. 
The Lutyens Delhi, the heart of the country, is a living memorial of the political landscape of the country, including the British Raj, the Independence Struggle, and the 70+ Independent India.
The opportunity is that the current political narrative for a New India by the time it is 75 years old, is creating room for redesigning the architecture, master plan, landscape of this highly proclaimed public realm through the redevelopment of the historical heritage into a new ‘world class’ office complex called as the Central Vista (CV).
It is up to the decision makers of the political idea and the designers of the architecture, master plan & landscape of this public realm, whether they use the opportunity and/or the challenge as a building block to restore & rejuvenate the faith in the democratic governance or… or to redefine the governance into an authority as concerned across the country now a days.
Whether the long-standing collective memory of the Lutyens Delhi needs conservation or construction by demolition cannot escape the relationship between architecture and democracy. There is a constant denial of that relationship in the architecture fraternity by pretending to be sanitized from politics. Then, the architecture of the public is often a political (mis)fit as one can see from the ongoing participatory Democracy being shelved, so is the Design for the time being.

Delhi and Museums

Delhi is the Museum Capital of the country. The Lutyens Delhi houses the maximum number of the historical and heritage buildings including the National Museum of the country. The locations of the Museums as well as the government buildings serve as the landmarks in the city structure because of their monumental architecture. Besides, the Museums with necessary infrastructure to preserve the millions of artefacts hold the image of the place. 
The heritage landscape of the public realm at the Rajpath, the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the India Gate lay the collective memory of the image of India. It is ironic that Lutyens Delhi is still not a UNESCO World Heritage City, whereas UNESCO is pretty active in declaring heritage sites in the other parts of India. If Lutyens Delhi was declared a UNESCO Heritage, then the world museum and architecture community may have some stake on the preservation of the historical and heritage buildings.
Much of the Central Vista Project (CVP) in Delhi is planned to be ready by the 2022 to commemorate the 75th Independence of India. However, the new development comes at the helm of demolition of several historical and heritage buildings and uprooting of several century plus years old trees. Among them is the National Museum of Delhi which is the largest and the most iconic museum in the country housing over 200,000 artefacts ranging from the prehistory to the modern age. 
Alongside the National Museum, the other buildings of historical and heritage buildings importance that are to make way for the CVP development are, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Shastri Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, Vigyan Bhawan, Vice President’s Residence, Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Raksha Bhawan, Annexe building of National Archives, and the Lok Kalyan Marg (7 Racecourse Road) which is the residence-cum-office of the Prime Minister of India.
The con(des)structive surgery of an urban heritage landscape of the public realm in the heart of the city that is multifunctional and having huge bequest value, requires a lot of authority both from the decision and the design. The ambitious plan to construct a New India through the new Parliament Building, the new residences for the prime minister and the vice-president and the ten new building blocks to accommodate government offices, seems to overrule the importance of the historical and heritage buildings including the Museums.
Although, there is assurance by the designers to not rupture the past and to respect the history and even to strengthen the original intent of the Lutyens Delhi. The promises of smooth transition of the museums and the offices to the new proposed buildings are not convincing given the implicit political intent to alter the history mainly of the independent movement and the 70 years of Independent India. 
Further, learning the plans to relocate the Museum Artefacts in the temporary locations is concerning as it implicitly signals an intended approach to erase the historical evidence as we know how poorly the government offices are physically maintained. How will the millions of priceless artefacts and fragile collections of the National Museum and National Archives be logged and stored safely when we have witnessed how strategically the government offices catch fire, files/things get lost, theft and even rot?
Enough has been written on the CVP with more criticisms than appraisals highlighting three main aspects. Firstly, the decision to do the CV; secondly, the design of the project; and thirdly the developments with a lot of demolition at the time when the country is severely suffering with poor COVID management. The decision of the CVP challenged the mandates of the democracy as well as the judiciary. The decision is oppressive on the history and the heritage apart from it being not in line with the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 (MPD 2021) that seeks to decentralize government offices in the NCR region, whereby no new Central government or Public Sector Undertaking offices to be located in NCT of Delhi.
The design is totalitarianism with its massive office complex of Stalinist origin to be superimposed on the heartland with extensive demolishing of historical & heritage buildings, cutting of trees, and ravaging the openness of the landscape. The urge to redefine (alter) a lived-living history and heritage by the decision makers and the designers is a dangerous proposition and disillusioned one. Decisions and deeds are irreversible at a later date and hence, what is decided and done today will also go down the history of the country with a pinch of salt. More because, the publicness of the project and the place was completely reversed to absolute secrecy in deciding the project plans and designs.
What is ironic in this process of the decision and design of the CVP followed by the demolitions is the feeble noise about those from the society, importantly from the political as well as the museum & architecture/urban design/landscape/planning fraternity. The least a democratic setup may do when the revamping of the most important place of the country is to take place, let there be a parliamentary as well as public consultation. It is important to connect the dot here that alongside starting the CVP development on the ground, the appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Delhi is made more powerful than the democratically elected Chief Minister. It is no coincidence that the central government is keen to take over the charge of the state. As those in power do have problems with too much democracy as that may delay the development process.
It is also important to mention here that the information on the Environmental Impact Assessment and the Building Health Assessments of the existing historical and heritage buildings are unavailable in the public domain to understand the logical sequence of the decisions on designs that allows so much of demolitions. By the logics of heritage conservation and sustainable development principles, it was very possible that the historical & heritage buildings were repurposed to cater to the needs of the government functioning. Besides, developing the CVP as per the Delhi Master Plan 2021 too may have been a possibility if the development decisions and designs were carried out in more participatory and transparent manner. This is how a democracy is nurtured and must function even today. Unfortunate it Is not functioning this way despite being unacceptable to many.

Spreading the positivity

There are criticisms linking the poor second wave COVID management and the ongoing CVP developments on the ground however, they are too little for the powerful and too late to change (or stop) the planned demolitions at the CVP. It is understandable that such new developments will entail a lot of ugly looking excavations and demolitions besides the busy transportation of goods and services. When the digging-demolition drives are in full swing alongside the havoc created by the second wave of COVID augmented with the poor vaccination policy and medical facilities, the ire of the citizens on the CVP is also understandable. More so, since amidst the lockdown, when the people of Delhi are running for the hospital beds, medical oxygens and even wood for burning & land for burial for the departed souls, the construction of the CVP is declared as an essential service despite the order of the courts to stop construction and several objections raised by the citizens/activists. This is not a coincidence.
When the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project was decided, designed and developed, it was not voiced substantially, the society signalled an appreciation as well as a surrender to the authority both in the decision making and in what is/can be a people design. Today, when the people of Ahmedabad do express the social-ecological concerns on the Sabarmati Riverfront Project, they do so at the same breath with an argument of ‘moving on’ since the things built cannot be changed. True, may be this is the new positivity called for. The CVP too signalled that confidence in the decision and the design for no room for discussion (forget dissent). Infact, the narrative of the CVP for the New India on the 75th Independence year is part of that positive drive that brought down the throat of the citizens to gulp with no grudge.
After the recent international media noise on the poor COVID management and further linking that to the ongoing demolitions & excavations at the CVP, there is serious intent from the decision makers to remain positive and further defending the need of the project. Since, the positivity drive is now stronger than ever with full legal authority to control the freedom of expressions, as a timid citizen of the country, here is a positive suggestion for interlinking the COVID and CVP. So that once the COVID and CVP are over, the citizens can move on in that positive (surrendered) mode to accept the change in the face of Rajpath.

A COVID Memorial

Around the World Museum Day this year, it is graceful to call for a need of a Memorial for the pandemic and unfolding of the crisis observed in the overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums of the country including the capital city. Since, Museums are the designated philosophical-permanent institution and a place of contemplation in the service of society which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and advancement. The ongoing COVID distress must get embodied in the essential CVP as a designated memoir to contemplate and celebrate the collective memory of the heroics as well as the horrors of the COVID governance.
The CVP may have been planned & designed prior to the advent of the COVID in the country, but then plans & designs are meant to evolve with the context and incorporate this crucial event that we are all witnessing. Since, the new buildings proposed in the CVP may survive (hopefully) a century plus years if we go by the logic of the present historical and heritage buildings of the Lutyens Delhi. So, it is a positive request that a COVID Memorial must be made an integral part of the CVP to link it to the memory of the pandemic that has occurred after a century.
It is for a reason that the parallels drawn between the COVID crisis and the CVP development will go down in the history of India as no less than an implicit unavoidable genocide of the citizens as a result of poor decisions apart from the poor healthcare facilities. Amidst that, the way the citizens have fought & suffered from the situation, the deceased do qualify as martyrs as well as victims. A COVID Memorial must register those deceased martyrs/victims alongside the decisions and the designs.

Representation of Central Vista by CEPT varsity alumna Mahafuj Ali

Where to have the COVID Memorial? The strategic central public space, the Rajpath of Old India making way for the Central Avenue of New India, can be an ideal COVID Memorial designate. The ongoing excavations at the Rajpath can lay the foundation for the COVID Memorial by being more useful to the COVID struggling citizens of Delhi in various ways; and thereby spreading the positivity of the COVID as well as the CVP as Apda Mei Avsar.

Apda mei Avsar

Apda mei Avsar, meaning Opportunity from a Challenge is so true as every challenge brings new opportunities. When a city and the country are being bruised, burnt, buried, bullied, burdened and bloated left, right & centre with the poor COVID governance more than the virus itself, here is a situation first time in the country that the decision makers and the designers empathise with the imposition of the CVP providing a logic of emancipation from the history and the heritage. Maybe this is the new Apda mei Avsar!
As we saw the horrific situations at the crematoriums and graveyards, this challenge too can be converted into opportunity by integrating the COVID deceased and the CVP development. Here is a lifetime opportunity for the decisions and the designs of creating CVP opportunity from the challenge of the COVID. The Rajpath’s excavated ground can be used for the last rites of burials and burnings. This can be truly an opportunity for CVP to solve the huge challenge Delhi (all cities/town/villages in the country) is facing due to the shortage of the burial grounds, cremation pyres, woods, and even the helping hands in the last rites. The excavated ground can serve the purpose of both the burning and the burial and with the labour (held inhumanly like hostages) anyway around can be a big support in carrying out the last rites.
Last rites for masses are historical phenomena in the world especially for the martyrs as well as the war victims. Examples from historical past show how kingdoms used the mass burning and burial post wars like the Kalinga wars and the plagues/pandemics like the last century Influenza. The Black Death mass burial at the Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire, the wartime Jewish mass graves in Rohatyn, and even the mass grave of COVID attempted in the city of Qom in Iran are a just few examples. The mass burial and burning at the New Central Avenue of the CVP may truly manifest the New India by reinstating the COVID adversity but at the same time the long-standing unity in diversity.
Converting the New Central Avenue into a Memorial may be a win-win situation for the deceased and the duo of the decision makers and the designers. The land, the most expensive resource in the city, can be put to multiple use which will also serve the meaning of Public Space. So, instead of hiding the excavation/construction at the Central Avenue, if the place is opened for the burials and the burning it will be more inclusive. In this way, the ashes and the bones of the COVID martyrs/victims can then add to the brick by brick foundation of the CVP, and thus may qualify as a participatory approach to building the New India.
Like the Rajpath is an open public space, if the New Central Avenue can be turned into an open Museum as a Holocaust Memorial and can definitely find a business model also for tourism.. This can also save expenditure of making another memorial besides it can be ready on time to commemorate the 75th Independence as it is also the processions path for the most national and international events. The country (and the world) can contemplate as well as celebrate the landscape of this new public realm.

Way Forward

There are various ways to design a Holocaust Memorial and the master decision makers-designers of this country-century know more about that. It is for the common citizens, a clue and inspiration for a Holocaust Memorial for Delhi, the Capital of India, can be taken from Berlin, the capital of Germany. Since India is walking a similar path in the early twenty first century as Germany walked in the early twentieth century. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is dedicated to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by a US architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial is a jungle of concrete towers where the towers represent the lives of the deceased besides representing those who stood by the massacre out of either handshake or helplessness. 
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin also fits our obsession for building and more building besides the love for cement-concrete as a manifestation of development by our decision makers and designers. There are other ways than going the concrete way of embodiment of the deceased like, the biodegradable burial pod as mundi and loop but let me leave the details for another discussion and for the designers.
Since the decisions and the designs of the CVP are compared with the National Mall in Washington DC and the Champs-Elysees of Paris while claiming it to be world class. Since, the CVP is going to replace the existing historical and heritage buildings with larger concretised contemporary office buildings in an effort to make this a psychological centre for both the city and the country more ‘world class’. And since the COVID pandemic is of world order, the proposal for Holocaust Memorial is not only positive it shall be a classic representation of being positive and finding Apda mei Avsar.
What is important to learn is that the desire among the powerful (decision makers and designers) to have the imprint on the present and the future is inevitable. Thousands of Museums around the world showcase this history. A COVID Holocaust Memorial for the is the most apt landscape expression for the New Central Avenue because, when the CVP becomes a history and a heritage tomorrow, generations can be reminded about the mourning of the COVID deaths apart from the Death of the Democracy.
If one is out to erase history, one has to realise what is done today is a history tomorrow and will be subject to appraisal as well as criticism by all means! The Museums will be the places to register, retrospect and reinterpret the new history rewritten.
---
Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator. A water enthusiast, a governance scholar, and a keen political observer. More about the work of Mansee is at: www.mansee.in

Comments

Anuj jain said…
Very well said!! But i think if they read this whole article they would have answers for these problems... and again.. those all answers would be as illogical as there work and ideas!!

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