An old obsession

By Gopalkrishna Gandhi

“‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’/ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Shelley’s sonnet about the futility of what may be called ‘stone-ego’ has not deterred the mighty from building, rebuilding, demolishing, raising on the debris of what has fallen. Only to find their place taken by a successor debris, a successor hubris.

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Some have done it with great taste and their creations have survived. Like the magnificent Brihadisvara temple at Tanjore, the Sun temple at Konarak, the group of monuments at Hampi, the imposing forts at Gwalior, Jaisalmer, Mehrangarh, Golconda, Sinhagarh, the exquisite one at Orchha, the dreamy Peri Mahal of Dara Shukoh overlooking the Dal Lake in Srinagar and, of course, Shah Jehan’s Taj Mahal. 

The British raj followed this tradition and left us the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and Lutyens’ New Delhi, of which Parliament House is the sceptre and Rashtrapati Bhavan the crown. And less known but not less admirable ones like the High Court building in Bengaluru, the Viceregal Lodge at Simla, the Governor’s Houses in Ooty and Darjeeling (rebuilt sensitively under the supervision of Governor John Anderson after the disastrous earthquake of 1934). 

These have not just survived but are alive with an outer and inner life of their own. Independent India has some outstanding examples of public architecture alongside far more thoroughly disastrous ones. The Somnath temple (raised under K.M. Munshi’s pioneering initiative), the Gandhi Mandapam (built in traditional stone architecture) in Chennai, the very Buddhist Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi (rebuilt, after a vicious fire, under the supervision of the late Uttar Pradesh civilian, M. Varadarajan), the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru (mentored by Kengal Hanumanthaiya), the Muziris Heritage Project (Architect: Benny Kuriakose) in Kerala are admirable examples.

And so if one may share Shelley’s disdain of stone-ego, one may also see and acknowledge a beneficent vein of good taste and good sense in several building initiatives. 

There has never been, in India, a time when public funds deployed for raising or restoring a building could not have been better used for the public weal. Poverty has been and is rife in India and may be expected to be so for the foreseeable future. And one may imagine someone somewhere (if not the department of audit & accounts) having tut-tutted each and every time all of these rose and said, ‘Can we afford this?’ For that matter, there may well have been the odd wiseacre who decried in Shah Jehan’s time the lavish spending from out of the treasury for the Empress’s grave. Famine was ravaging the Deccan, Gujarat and Khandesh then as a result of three main crop failures resulting in two million deaths due to starvation. And yet it was when India was in such a state that Shah Jehan thought of the grand mausoleum. That famine lost to memory, the Taj stands in all its glory. Irony is the story of India.

And so, today, when there is a pandemic on, calling for unprecedented outlays, with clear marks of recession, acute distress among farmers, and the possibility of tensions along our international borders igniting a war, the reported allocation of Rs 22,000 crore for a new Central Vista in New Delhi, including an outlay of Rs 971 crore for a new Parliament House, seems ironic. 

Is this the time to spend scarce public money on breaking existing structures and building new public monuments? The matter has been taken to the Supreme Court. How it will be disposed of, no one can tell. It may choose to not interfere in what, all said and done, is a time-honoured executive prerogative. But while doing so, it could also do something more. 

Justice M.C. Chagla and Justice S.T. Desai, in a major decision on corporate funding of political parties in 1957, had ruled that the law of the day permitted it and said the Bombay High Court (before which the matter lay) would not interfere. But Their Lordships did something more. They said in a stellar obiter: “Before parting with this case we think it our duty to draw the attention of Parliament to the great danger inherent in permitting companies to make contributions to the funds of political parties. It is a danger which may grow apace and which may ultimately overwhelm and even throttle democracy in this country.” The two Hon’ble Judges performed their duty by the law and their duty by their consciences, both. 

Stone-ego is as old as the hills on which the great forts that I have mentioned stand. What the National Democratic Alliance government today is planning to do is not, in its essentials, different from what others have done — for example, the Commonwealth Games spendings of 2010 which included huge outlays on construction and renovation. The proposal for a new Central Vista reflects an old, worn obsession with the use of monumentalism to ‘leave a mark’ without realizing that not every such enterprise becomes a Brihadisvara or a Taj. The project is seen and shown up as being necessary and, in fact, as visionary. Is it? 

Our iconic Parliament House, a marvel of architecture and now a site of historic voltage, let us be realistic and admit, has become far too congested for functional efficiency. Hon’ble MPs sit cramped in the Lok Sabha. The office spaces given in its circular confines to parties are self-defeatingly small and, because of partitioning and cubby-holing, ungainly. With the Houses’ strength scheduled to go up on account of the highly overdue increase in women’s representation and after the delimitation due in 2026, the present building will be simply incapable of coping. India’s Parliament needs another site. No getting away from that.

But it is short-sighted to find that ‘another site’ in Delhi. If Parliament House is overcrowded, the national capital is even more so. Its air became briefly clear when the city was under a total lockdown. But with unlocking, it is ‘back to normal’, which is to say it is claustrophobic. Delhi will choke without a lockdown, it will starve with it. Delhi needs fewer, not more, buildings. Air quality apart, we have forgotten something absolutely, foundationally, vital. The earthquake zoning map of India divides India into four seismic zones (Zone 2, 3, 4 and 5). Zone 5 expects the highest level of seismicity. Delhi stands, with precarious heroism, on Zone 4. It is time, high time, Delhi began shifting not just Parliament House but much of itself not to other parts of its crowded self but to other parts of India. And not after an earthquake has shaken the daylights out of it but before. The people of Delhi deserve this deliverance.

South Africa — no small country — has one executive capital (Pretoria), one legislative capital (Cape Town), one judicial capital (Bloemfontein) and one business capital (Johannesburg). Why must the Republic of India remain a slave to Moghul and British raj geopolitical cartography? 

A five-year plan to thin the capital out into four different venues, with its Diplomatic Corps also relocated in a place that is safe for the lungs of its privileged population, is what we need. Anything short of that would be cosmetic, palliative. And by virtue of its ignoring environmental and seismic realities, dangerous as well. Looking into the future the Supreme Court will see this to be true. 

Will this not cost more than we can afford? It will cost less than what we may have to bear. 

India needs not a new Central Vista but a new decentralized vision, a turning of the page of India’s political history. And as such will save the national capital of India from becoming Ozymandias.

This is an editorial originally published by the Telegraph.

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