New Delhi, India – Almost the entire Indian capital, ravaged by a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus and forced to go under a lockdown, has come to a standstill – except for a “vanity project” undertaken by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, triggering widespread criticism.
The $2.8bn Central Vista Redevelopment Project, currently under way in the heart of New Delhi, includes the construction of a new triangular-shaped parliament building, a new residential complex to house the prime minister and the vice president, and the refurbishment and construction of important bureaucratic and security office buildings for the federal government.
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The project is spread over a 3.2km-stretch between the sprawling presidential residence on the city’s Raisina Hills and India Gate, a war memorial, in what is known as Lutyens’ Delhi, named after the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who designed most of the buildings in the early 20th century when India was under the British rule.
In a controversial order earlier this year, the Supreme Court designated the project as an “essential service”.
But the opposition parties have questioned the timing and necessity of what it calls Modi’s “vanity project”, being undertaken when India is reporting a record number of coronavirus infections and deaths amid accusations of the federal government’s apathy and inaction in controlling the pandemic.
In a letter to Modi on Wednesday, 12 opposition leaders, including Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, asked the prime minister to stop the “Central Vista construction and [use] the money for oxygen and vaccines”.
A day later, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted in Hindi that Modi is “missing, along with vaccines, oxygen and medicines”.
“All that remain are the Central Vista project, GST on medicines and the prime minister’s photos here and there,” Gandhi posted. GST refers to the indirect Goods and Services Tax imposed in 2017 by Modi’s government.
In another letter to Modi last week, 76 public intellectuals from across the world, including scholar Gayatri Spivak, artist Anish Kapoor, writer Orhan Pamuk, and Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, criticised the “extravagant project” in the “midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives”.
Three of Delhi's iconic buildings which have been symbols of its history and culture – National Museum, National Archives and Indra Gandhi National Centre for Arts – are set to be demolished as part of the government's Central Vista project. pic.twitter.com/Sy1gnp9lqF
— NDTV (@ndtv) May 17, 2021
Modi’s government has called the allegations “bizarre”. In a series of tweets, Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri claimed the government has allocated “nearly twice” the money spent on the project for COVID-10 vaccination.
But many public health experts have also chastised the government for spending such an exorbitant amount of money on “vanity” projects.
“There is a time for everything. Now is not the time for the Central Vista but to use all our resources to save lives and help people to get over the trauma that COVID-19 has inflicted on us,” Sujatha K Rao, former secretary of health and family welfare, told Al Jazeera.
Slum dwellers fear eviction
Barely 7km (4 miles) from the project site lies a slum dwelling called Yamuna Khadar along the Yamuna river’s floodplains in eastern Delhi’s Mayur Vihar neighbourhood.
Ashok, 49, sits outside his shanty, watching the mounds of mud dug out from the Central Vista project and dumped outside their homes for the past few months.
The slum dwellers say they have been told by officials pouring the mud to relocate. Some say the police even threatened them to do so.
“I am scared that if I go to the hospital, by the time I get back, I will be evicted from this place,” says Ashok, coughing.
Ashok tested COVID-positive and is struggling to breathe. His daughter, Meena, is trying to source an oxygen cylinder or a hospital bed.
“Papa’s fever hasn’t gone down in days. We are tired of searching for hospitals. No hospital has an oxygen bed,” Meena says.
Rupam Kumari, another resident of Yamuna Khadar, recently recovered from COVID-19. She says their houses will submerge if it rains.
“Our houses constantly have mud from the construction and we had cough already due to COVID-19. Now it is worse with all the mud constantly acting as irritants,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Besides, the rainwater will make our houses submerged. We are very scared. We grew up here, we don’t want to leave.”
Dev Pal, a housing rights activist from the area, says the government is building a new parliament building as people continue to suffer.
“People who run the country will sit in the newly constructed parliament, built by demolishing their own voters’ households. Is this violation of fundamental rights not oppressive?” he asks.
Notions of colonial heritage
The advocates of Central Vista often speak of the project as some sort of “a victory that symbolises the removal of historical colonial oppression”. They also speak of the necessity for a new parliament, claiming the present one is outdated.
But historians want the people to dispel the myth that all the buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi were built by the British.
“The colonial history of the Vista lasted only 17 years. It is important to point this out because the structures destroyed or slated for demolition are all postcolonial, built by a free Indian state between the 1950s and 2011. None of them are ‘symbols of colonial oppression’,” historian and author Narayani Gupta told Al Jazeera.
Central Vista! 17000 Cr extravaganza in the midst of the pandemic to satisfy 1 man's vanity pic.twitter.com/CE9Hl2I9HF
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) May 16, 2021
Gupta says the project is “all about real estate and building contracts”.
“‘Heritage’ has for some decades now become a convenient concept on which projects of tourism development, of competitive ‘nationalisms’, have piggybacked,” she said.
Swapna Liddle, another author and historian, also says the interpretation of Central Vista as a colonial heritage is deeply flawed.
“The British looked at the history of India while building the Vista, they were trying to incorporate the history of Delhi into the Vista. If we look at the alignment of Rajpath, it aligns straight to the Old Fort and is parallel to Chandni Chowk (in Old Delhi),” she told Al Jazeera.
“The building materials like sandstones, the chhatri (dome-shaped pavilion) and chhajja (overhanging eave), the stupa-like build of the president’s house are very Delhi in their heritage. So it is wrong to call it a colonial heritage.”
The new parliament building is expected to be finished in November next year, followed by the prime minister’s residence a month later. The full project is expected to be finished by the end of 2026.