KOLKATA, India — Though India’s Supreme Court has ordered a halt to construction on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Central Vista project, the court did allow a foundation stone for the new parliament building to be laid on Dec. 10.
“The new parliament building will fulfill the needs of 21st century India. It is a historic day and a testament to ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’[Self-Reliant India],” Modi said during the ceremony.
Beyond the installation of the foundation stone, no construction can begin unless the Supreme Court grants ted with the groundbreaking ceremony.
“We thought we are dealing with a prudent litigant and that deference will be shown,” said the three-judge bench of A. K. Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheswari and Sanjiv Khanna. “We never thought you would go ahead so aggressively with construction. We don’t mind if you do paperwork, or lay foundation stone, but no construction should be done.”
The new parliament building will be at the heart of the INR 20,000-crore ($271 billion) Central Vista redevelopment project along the 3 kilometer (1.8 mile) stretch between the presidential palace and the iconic war memorial at India Gate.
Taking suo motto cognizance (related to an action taken by a court of its own accord, without request by the parties involved) of reports about the construction and objections to it, the judges said, “We have listed this matter because of certain developments we came across in public domain. The fact that there is no stay does not mean you can go ahead with everything.”
Among the opponents is Salman Khurshid, a former Cabinet minister from the opposition Indian National Congress party.
“This government does not believe in dialogue, they only believe in monologue,” said Khurshid, who objects to the amount of money being spent on the mega project in Delhi. “There is an economic downside right now in the country. The priority today in India is to address the concerns of the ordinary citizens. Many are affected economically and others are in terms of health.”
Khurshid said the government is “insensitive,” and the project could have been easily postponed after the pandemic because “in the life of a nation, it does not matter if a parliament house is constructed after a few years” as the priority should be of the country’s citizens.
“The situation calls for a decrease in expenditure, rather than increase it,” Khurshid said.
According to the International Monetary Fund, India’s GDP is forecast to contract by 10.3 percent this financial year, which ends on March 31, 2021.
The proposed four-story parliament building would occupy 64,500 square kilometers at a cost of nearly INR 1,000 crore ($13 billion). It is meant to accommodate 888 members in the Lok Sabha (upper house) chamber with an option to increase to 1,224 members during joint sessions, and is expected to be completed before India’s 75th Independence Day in August 2022.
“The current parliament building was built close to a century ago,” said Nalin Kohli, spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Its facilities are considered to be inadequate for meeting the current requirements despite several attempts at retrofitting over the years.”
The new parliament building’s interior will showcase Indian culture and the diversity of regional arts, crafts, textiles and architecture. The design plan includes space for a Central Constitutional Gallery accessible to the public.
The entire complex will include ministerial and secretariat buildings, the National Archives, a few national museums and a national stadium.
“The move to construct a new building is to promote themselves on a very grand scale. It will be remembered because it is being done at a time when people are in dire need. The money used in the new parliament house can feed a lot of people, it can build a lot of schools and hospitals,” Khursid said.
Kohli, the BJP spokesperson, told Zenger News: “The argument why should the government embark on the project in these times is a classic and typical argument of leftist parties who criticize every infrastructure project and reform across the world.”
Considering the efforts of the British to blend with the Indian traditions and culture as a mark of political symbolism, old buildings, including the parliament building, hold great cultural and historical significance.
“The capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi to reinvent the British governance in India. They (the British) wanted to project themselves as a part of the Indian tradition,” said Swapna Liddle, an author and historian, who has written extensively on Delhi.
“The location of the old Central Vista is Indraprastha, which is believed to be the old capital of the Pandavas — the five brothers in the mythological epic ‘Mahabharata.’ The buildings incorporated strong motifs and forms of Indian architecture such as the Sanchi Stupa as the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan [the official residence of the president of India]. Sandstones were used to construct those buildings, which have been used in many old Indian architectural forms.”
The 93-year-old parliament building, also known as the Sansad Bhavan, houses the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the upper and lower houses. The Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone of the building on Feb. 12, 1921. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker at a cost of INR83 lakhs ($1.1 million) and took six years to build.
The old parliament building will become a heritage site once the proposed new complex is completed.
Liddle said the current parliament buildings are very significant because a lot of history and emotions attached to them.
“The first constituent assembly when India gained independence was held in that building,” Liddle told Zenger News. “Traditions of the modern Indian state are tied up with that building. History and traditions are important. All the Western countries are restoring their old government buildings.
“The significance should be kept intact and not thrown away by the present government.”
(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Judith Isacoff. Map by Urvashi Makwana.)