July 25, 2021

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In a new Central Vista, let old stinky bhawans become history

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Uday Deb
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to scrap the Planning Commission in his first term and replace it with Niti Aayog was greeted with a sense of dismay by the “policy elites” who inhabit a charmed geography in central Delhi. It was a blow to federalism and the state was abdicating its duties towards the poor and the disadvantaged, they said. The leafy venues that host dozens of think tanks, NGOs and international organisations quivered with outrage and indignation.

Having been at the receiving end of the Planning Commission’s politicised and often discriminatory approach, and well aware how chief ministers had to line up to bargain for budgets, Modi understood that cauterisation was the remedy. For the vast gravy train of experts and consultants who were part of a cosy ecosystem, this was a calamity. They intuitively recognised the change was not cosmetic: it was an assault on the old regime and its political ideology.

After a slow start, Niti Aayog picked up pace under its first vice chairperson Prof Arvind Panagariya. A gifted academic capable of framing a strong intellectual response to Left-dominated policy debates, Panagariya worked with dedicated officials and talented young professionals on a new medical regulator, Aadhaar and financial inclusion, education policy and reforms in agriculture. Thereafter, the Aayog helmed Ayushman Bharat and is a key part of the team driving India’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The opposition to the Central Vista project largely reflects a similar sense of displacement and dispossession. This time the ouster is more tangible. The physical architecture of government is being refashioned in sync with a changed political reality, and a form and vision of governance that is a radical departure from the past. The uprooting of the heavy grey masonry (coated with a DDA shade of yellow) is a transmogrification, causing a deep trauma to those who correctly suspect the reordering will further embed the post-2014 changes.

As with most other discussions, the debate is essentially politicised. On the one hand, it echoes the annoyance of high priests of a certain sensibility who for long assumed a primacy in deciding the country’s aesthetics. The apron strings of this lot were tied with political mentors for whom they designed appropriate cultural spectacles that meshed with the prevailing political consensus. The idea was to set up a convenient and lucrative symbiotic system — ideological endorsement for political patronage. The fury of scorned punditry can be a sight to behold.

The truth is that the buildings the redevelopment aims to replace are plain ugly. No leap of imagination can transform unlovely “bhavans” with stinky loos (things have improved but you would not use them unless you had to), cheap panelling concealing layers of electric wiring and coolers and air conditioners that stick out like warts into “heritage” of any sort. Buildings that came up in fits and starts can’t really qualify on this score. A warren of crowded offices, the spaces are fundamentally ill-designed — a decent sized conference table barely leaves space for people to shuffle around.
The look and façade of Shastri Bhavan and its sibling bhavans is a throwback to Soviet-style architecture that can be seen to this day in East Europe and Russian cities. The resemblance is uncanny and the clunky look very much mirrored the dominant political paradigm of the time. India’s rulers after Independence, right up to the 1990s, were deeply wedded to a socialist worldview that saw them adopt Soviet-style five-year plans, economic thinking that prioritised regulation and controls and a societal vision enshrining Marxist scholarship in academic curriculums.

Every nation has the right to create its modern monuments. Nothing is frozen in time, and no truth is immutable. Fears have been expressed that the re-modelling that includes a new Parliament building is a “Hindutva” project. The designs made public so far indicate modern architecture. Doubts on grounds of environment are important and must be considered, though it may be worth assessing how much emissions can be reduced by replacing the highly energy inefficient bhavans. Angst over “wasteful” spending in the time of a pandemic is intriguing. Economists who are compatriots of the “objectors” are busy demanding that the government borrow and spend more. Surely, the massive Central Vista project will help create jobs and provide business. And it will be a lasting asset.
A significant way in which Modi differs from previous BJP leaders is that he has not the slightest desire to court or seek approval of the Lutyens crowd. This is likely to remain unchanged, ensuring continuing strife with a tenacious, if sidelined elite. The concrete imposition in the heart of Delhi should have been atomised long ago. It is best to let it slide into history without further ado.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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