Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for a new parliament building on Thursday that will form part of a contentious and “vulgar” $2.7bn overhaul of New Delhi’s imperial heart.
The redevelopment of New Delhi’s colonial era, 3km-long ceremonial avenue, which links the grand presidential palace to the monumental India Gate, has been called “Modi’s dream”. It is also intended to boost the prime minister’s image as the architect of an ascendant India with a new capital befitting its stature.
“When the British built these buildings, they never had an independent India on the horizon,” Hardeep Singh Puri, the minister of housing and urban affairs, told the Financial Times. “The idea is to make this look like the capital of an independent country with landmark buildings.”
However, the planned overhaul of the country’s most distinctive public spaces, with its echoes of Washington DC’s grand mall, has outraged conservationists.
Architects and urban planners have challenged the plan in the Supreme Court, which gave the go-ahead for the groundbreaking ceremony, but warned the government against any substantive work — either demolition or construction — until the cases are decided.
The government plans to replace the distinctive, 93-year-old circular Parliament House, which was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker when the British imperial capital moved from Kolkata to New Delhi.
“[The ceremonial avenue] is a part of history and it is an extraordinary urban design,” said architect AG Krishna Menon, former head of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Arts and Culture, who filed one of the legal challenges. “The public adopted it and it was their space.”
Mr Menon said the government’s plans had been marked by a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which trampled heritage protection laws.
“In conservation, you say the patina of age is value,” he said. “Here we are discarding the patina of decades and building a brand new set of buildings. I think it’s foolish. The new parliament will be a stage set: glitzy, vulgar and completely inauthentic.”
The triangular new parliament, to be built by Tata Projects, will have capacity to seat about 900 lawmakers, in preparation for a parliamentary expansion expected in 2026. Mr Modi wants the new structure ready by 2022 to mark the 75th year of India’s independence.
Officials have suggested that the existing sandstone parliament building, the stage for Jawaharlal Nehru’s proclamation of the birth of modern India as well as the country’s impassioned constitutional debates, might serve as a “museum of democracy”.
The redevelopment plan envisions 10 massive office blocks with capacity to house 51 central ministries now scattered across the city as well as a new prime ministerial residence.
Ministers and senior bureaucrats in the colonial era north and south blocks, which house crucial departments, will move into the new blocks while some buildings constructed in the post-independence years will be demolished.
“These buildings built in the 1960s are hideous,” Mr Puri said. “You have to build to new, higher environmental standards.”
The new administrative zone is being designed by Bimal Patel, an architect from Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Known for a neo-brutalist style with stark geometric forms and little ornamentation, Mr Patel has worked closely with Mr Modi on other public projects, including the Sabarmati waterfront development in Ahmedabad.