Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rebuilding part of New Delhi, but the mammoth undertaking is drawing fire because it's estimated to cost billions at a time when the nation is grappling with a devastating coronavirus outbreak and the economic fallouts of local shutdowns.
The planned changes will cement Modi's legacy in one of the world's oldest cities by reconstructing central Delhi, which houses the legislature and other historical buildings. The project covers an area as large as 50 football fields. India will get a new parliament building. The present 94-year-old structure, built during British colonial rule, will become a museum. Open spaces are poised to be repurposed for government offices. While many details haven't been announced, media reports have said a new prime minister's residence is likely to be built. All of it is to be readied for 2024, when Modi faces federal elections for a third term.
The massive project — which local media have estimated could cost about 200 billion rupees ($2.7 billion) — has grown more controversial as India's coronavirus cases have exploded. On social media, some questioned the need for spending on new government structures at a time when the nation is dealing with severe fallouts from the pandemic. One cartoon doing the rounds on Twitter depicted Indians without jobs, food and ambulances alongside a picture of Modi announcing a new parliament.
"The PM in his speeches since the pandemic broke, has repeatedly asked Indians to sacrifice — their time, job, lifestyle, their human and cultural tendencies to be gregarious," Bengaluru-based historian Ramchandra Guha said via text message. "Now the citizens must ask the PM to sacrifice something for the nation as well. His project to redesign central vista was always controversial. It is now absolutely untenable. He should drop it. He still can and should."
Spokespeople at the housing and urban affairs ministry and the prime minister's office didn't respond to emails seeking comment.
In recent weeks, a fresh wave of the coronavirus has roiled India, leaving hospital beds, medicines and oxygen in short supply. Crematoriums are overrun, and India has reported several days of more than 300,000 new daily infections. Families are putting out desperate pleas on social media, begging for medicines and aid for relatives sickened with the virus. India has had more than 195,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, and its economy plunged into recession last year, leaving millions of daily wage earners and others without jobs.
Construction on the project has already begun in New Delhi, with cranes and building equipment blocking entire sections in the center of the capital city. The government has said the architectural revamp is necessary because of the age and deterioration of current buildings. When laying the foundation stone for the new triangle-shaped parliament building in December, the prime minister called it a "landmark opportunity to build a peoples' parliament for the first time after Independence." That hasn't stemmed criticism from opposition parties, historians, architects, environmentalists and even former bureaucrats.
"Given the other needs of the economy right now, and the government's strained fiscal situation, it does raise questions about the priorities of the government and whether the money could be better spent elsewhere," Akhil Bery, Washington-based South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said via email. "Infrastructure is needed throughout India, and investing this money into roads and railways might be more beneficial, especially in the short-term."
Delhi is a city that's been plundered, conquered and rebuilt many times in the past. It's borne witness to the rise and fall of age-old empires like the Tughlaqs and the Mughals. There are references to it in the 5,000-year-old ancient Hindu text Mahabharata. As a result, the planned changes have been evoking sharp emotions for months, even before the pandemic worsened in India.
Critics cast the project as an attempt to erase institutional memories and point to the absence of public discussions around repurposing the heritage buildings.
"It is ill thought out, the necessity of the project has not been established, the environmental clearances have been problematic," said Anuj Srivastava, a former architect in the Indian Army's Corps of Engineer, who filed a petition in the court against the project last year. "Nobody builds a new parliament unless you can't re-purpose the old one, like the way Westminster is being restored and refurbished."
The Supreme Court allowed the project to proceed, saying it didn't violate environmental or land-use norms. However, one of the three judges on the panel expressed concern over the lack of public consultation before the project's clearance.
There are also apprehensions that the new buildings will erase historical memories, which should be preserved to better understand the past even when it's difficult, said Najaf Haider, a professor of history in Jawaharlal Nehru University. "These memorials are a great reminder of what happened in the past and by preserving those we are remembering both atrocities, survival and possibilities of future."
Construction on the new parliament will continue during the lockdown announced by the Delhi government, the Hindu newspaper reported on April 19.
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