Narendra Modi's project for the Central Vista was always controversial. It is now absolutely untenable.
Six years ago, the then editor of the Hindustan Times invited me to write a fortnightly column. I agreed, on condition that there would be no censorship. While occasionally some changes to my text were made without my consent, there was no attempt to get me to rewrite my column or change its arguments. Until this week, when the Hindustan Times declined to print the column I had sent, which was scheduled to appear on Sunday, April 19. I am grateful to The Wire for carrying this column in its entirety.
To my mind, the Modi government’s redesign of New Delhi brings to mind not so much living Communist autocrats as it does some dead African despots. It is the sort of vanity project, designed to perpetuate the ruler’s immortality, that Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast and Jean Bédel-Bokassa of the Central African Republic once inflicted on their own countries (for more on the first, see V.S. Naipaul’s essay ‘The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro’).
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit us, this expensive redesign of the core of the national capital seemed a wasteful and self-indulgent exercise1. It has now become much more so. For, an economy that was already flailing has been brought to the brink by the pandemic. The ill-planned lockdown has led to enormous human suffering. Working-class Indians, already living on the edge, are now faced with utter destitution.
- 1. In fact, as one who has seen the work of this firm of architects in Ahmedabad at first-hand, I have an additional concern: that they are utterly indifferent to history and heritage. A prime example of this was their design of a second campus for the Indian Institute of Ahmedabad. The original IIM-A campus, designed by Louis Kahn, beautifully blends traditional and modern practices, using red brick, open windows, and courtyards. It is a joy to see, walk through, study and teach in. Its successor is cold and soulless, built entirely of concrete; those assigned offices there yearn for a transfer to the original and much more welcoming campus.