By Manju Menon, Kanchi Kohli*
The proposal to revamp the Central Vista of Delhi involves, among other things, creating a new parliament. But last week, the Central Public Works Department moved an application for the environment clearance calling it an “expansion and renovation of existing Parliament building”.
This project, of such great importance for the political past and future of this country, is yet to formally involve parliamentarians from diverse political parties. Due to the absence of any parliamentary debate on this subject, common people are left asking the difficult questions about why this is needed, who will pay for this extravagant spending and what will become of the existing parliament, the temple of democracy?
The government’s proposal is to build a new “triangular” shaped parliament in the leafy district park of nine acres adjoining the present parliament. The new building is to have halls for both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, and another for joint sittings. It will include lounges, a “sky-lit” foyer and a cafeteria along with offices and ancillary facilities.
This building is meant to hold more members of parliament (MPs) once the constituencies are redrawn based on the 2021 population census. One of the stated aims is also to modernise parliament facilities. The application for environment clearance states that there is no other alternative to meet these objectives but provides no documents to show that alternatives were even considered.
What happened to the parliamentary committees?
The need for upscaling parliamentary facilities is not a new one. Parliament, which is under the management of the CPWD, has been said to be deteriorating and it is not known in public who or what is the cause of its poor upkeep. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) and a Standing Technical Committee (STC) comprising MPs and technical experts were set up to address these concerns. The STC is advisory to the JPC.
The JPC was set up in 2009 by Meira Kumar, the then speaker of the Lok Sabha. The ex-officio members included then deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha K. Rahman Khan, then home minister P. Chidambaram and then urban development minister Jaipal Reddy. The Lok Sabha members included L.K. Advani, Mamata Banerjee, Ram Sundar Das, Baliram, Pranab Mukherjee and Revati Raman Singh, and special invitee Pavan Kuman Bansal, then minister for water resources and parliamentary affairs. The JPC was set up to discuss, plan and oversee the “maintenance of heritage character and development of parliament house complex”. This committee was to also decide the budget and the creation of a special corpus fund for this purpose.
During her term as Speaker, Meira Kumar also created a new “Heritage Management Branch” to assist the two committees. This branch reviews all CPWD proposals for maintenance, renovation and upgrade of the parliament house prior to the work being carried out. In 2013, the JPC had reportedly decided to ask CPWD to hire consultants “to prepare a masterplan which would ensure that only “core activity” is carried out in the 85-year-old building.”
In 2014, after the formation of a new government, the JPC was reconstituted by Speaker Sumitra Mahajan in consultation with the chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The members of this JPC included prominent Lok Sabha members such as L.K. Advani, Sudip Bhadopadhyay, Thambi Durai, Anant Geete, Mallikarjun Kharge and Bhartruhari Mahtab. The Rajya Sabha members included Rahman Khan, C.P. Thakur and Sharad Yadav
The main terms of reference of this JPC were:
“ – to formulate policies, guidelines and programmes on conservation, restoration, rehabilitation and maintenance of the parliament house complex in accordance with standard conservation principles and procedures
– Consider and approve proposals for acquisition of additional land, construction of new buildings/structures or development of existing buildings within parliament house complex
– Monitor and review the steps being taken for the conservation of Heritage character of parliament house complex in light of the decisions of the committee.”
The parliament website does not disclose any proceedings related to either of these JPCs. Since 2019, when the new Lok Sabha was formed, there has been no update on the constitution of a JPC under the current Speaker Om Birla. It is not known why there is no JPC when it is meant to take forward the parliamentary oversight on this subject of the “conservation, restoration, rehabilitation and maintenance of the parliament house complex”. Instead, media articles show that the PMO has taken charge of this task of revamping Central Vista including the parliament. Urban development minister Hardeep Puri has asserted that this is the dream of the Prime Minister.
No information on the JPCs is available on the parliament website.
What about the present parliament?
Another important question that seems to be left by the wayside is what is to be done with the old parliament, a Grade I heritage structure, once the new one is up. The designer of the project has stated that the project is “evolving”. In keeping with this cavalier mode of restructuring the most iconic and public heritage zone of the national capital, the existing parliament has been stated to be used “on some occasions” or as a museum.
Senior politicians like Sharad Yadav have been outspoken in their views regarding this endeavour. Pranab Mukherjee stated that an existing parliament can be renovated to respond to the requirements of more space. He also added that the new parliament building is not going “to help or improve the working of the Parliamentary system in India”. Rajmohan Unnithan recently wrote in his op-ed in “The Hindu” that there is a need to renovate the parliament and not rebuild it.
Responding to Puri’s assertion that this is the prime minister’s vision, Pavan Varma wrote, “What is this “vision”? And, can one man’s “vision” of the new remain uninterrogated even as it seeks to demolish or render redundant much of the old?”
The historical task of envisioning a parliament that could represent the collective soul of an independent nation has been tightly held in governmental control. The MoHUA stated to the media in November 2019 that they will initiate consultations with the parliamentarians “soon”, however no such meetings seem to have taken place.
The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a statement on February 9, 2020 asking the government to “first discuss it in the Parliament as it concerns the reconstruction, redevelopment and expansion of the Parliament building which is unique to Delhi, country’s capital.” It is crucial for the MPs to be given a chance and the time to systematically weigh in on the implications of this project in these times of economic distress, social churning and environmental challenges.
The task of persuading urban planners and architects seems to have been outsourced to Bimal Patel, the project’s designer. Various institutions have hosted him and heard his presentations. These are being referred to as consultations by the government.
Since the time the government’s Central Vista project came to light through the tender bid issued for the selection of a project design, architects and urban planners have been worried. The consultancy tender to design the new parliament was included in the overall proposal to revamp Central Vista. The full proposal involves the building of several components such as new residences for the prime minister and the vice president and several Central government buildings along the Rajpath and Janpath. This massive project in this space of historic and political importance has been approached as if it were a common construction project as shown by the application form for the environment clearance of the parliament.
The new parliament is expected to be ready for use by 2022, as declared by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla at a conference in Ottawa in January 2020.The short time frames within which this project was conceived and could be implemented may result in irreparable historical and cultural losses, and come at huge social, environmental and economic costs.
*With Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. This article was first published in The Wire