The proud venue of the Republic Day celebrations, Rajpath along with other iconic landmarks scattered throughout Lutyens’ Delhi, stands at the crosswords of time, waiting for a new chapter to either make or break its legacy.
When I was a child, long drives in and around Lutyens’ Delhi in our maroon-tinted five seater used to be the highlight of my Sunday mornings. Glued to my window seat, I would gape at the symmetrical buildings, wide roads lined with trees, and endless sprawls of green, without sparing a blink. I also remember waking up early on the morning of January 26 every year just to sit in front of the television and watch the Republic Day parade with equal amounts of astonishment and enthusiasm. No matter which of the either two I’d be witnessing, it’d always take my mind to the other. That’s the beauty of an iconic heritage — skimming through it is never an option. It will always take you deep, through each of its beautiful chapters.
Rajpath, the long and grassy stretch of three kilometres running east to west, sweeps down from India Gate all the way to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill, with the circular Parliament House sitting in between. Central Vista, home to the grand complex of government buildings and designated with Grade 1 heritage status, was designed by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker following the 1911 decision to move the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to Delhi.
Sir Lutyens’ Delhi stands as a tribute to the era bygone and the timeless spirit of the city ever since. Generations, like mine, have grown up to identify the city with the iconic architecture that binds the vast area together. The geometric design, with its wide avenues, huge mansions, leafy boulevards, and sprawling lawns together dwelling in a flawless symmetry, took inspiration from European capitals, but was also infused with Indian influences from the architecture of Hindu temples to the red-stoned grandeur of Mughal forts. The trees here — right from amaltas with yellow summer blossoms to the sun-kissed jamuns and the towering neems with their bitter-sweet smell forever lingering in the air — have stood witness to many historic events and are a heritage in themselves.
Rajpath, formerly known as the Kingsway, is also where all the Republic Day action happens. Though India became a free nation on August 15, 1947, it took the country three years to declare itself a Sovereign, Democratic and Republic state with the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950. A salute of 21 guns and the unfurling of the Indian National Flag by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, heralded the historic birth of the Indian Republic on that day. Since then, it is marked by a public holiday along with grand celebrations across the country, especially in Rajpath and surrounding area. The grandest and most important of them all is the parade held at Rajpath, a breathtaking spectacle of the country’s rich cultural heritage, unique initiatives, and military prowess. An event so patriotic and spectacular that even its final rehearsals make the news every year!
Presided over by the President of India, the main objective of the parade is to pay tribute to the martyrs for sacrificing their own lives for the country as well as confer bravery awards on military persons, citizenry and children for showing courage in the face of adversity. It begins with the Prime Minister laying wreath at Amar Jawan Jyoti (which has now been merged with the Eternal Flame at National War Museum), and heading to Rajpath for the grand parade marked by the 21-gun salute, unfurling of the National Flag, and presenting Paramvira Chakra, Ashoka Chakra, Vir Chakra, and other prestigious awards to gallantry award winners. Indian military forces display their might on land and in air, through state-of-the-art warfare equipment, flypasts, and stunts.
Soon after, a vibrant tableaux of thematised floats from different states joins in, followed by cultural performances by school children clad in traditional and patriotic attires, and a march of bedecked elephants, on the giant backs of which, ride the children who are honoured by the Indian Council for showing outstanding bravery and selfless sacrifices. The event is concluded by dare-devil motor cycle riders performing unbelievable stunts and a flypast by Indian Air Force fighter jets over Rajpath, as spectators look on with their hearts filled with pride and nostalgia. The Beating Retreat Ceremony at the Vijay Chowk on January 29 every year marks the culmination of the four-day-long Republic Day celebrations.
Back in time, on January 26, 1950, the first ever Republic Day parade was performed at the Irwin Amphitheater (now Major Dhyan Chand Stadium) where 3,000 officers of the armed forces and more than 100 aircrafts participated, after India’s newly-sworn President Dr. Rajendra Prasad rode through the streets of Delhi to arrive at the venue. This year, the 73rd Republic Day parade is to be marked by cultural performances by over 480 dancers from across the country, as many as 21 tableaux, and a grand 75-aircraft flypast by the Indian Air Force. The celebrations have changed, of course, over the years. If there’s one thing that has remained unaltered, it is Rajpath, the proud venue of the Republic Day parade. The same, almost monumental buildings along the stretch have witnessed these grand ceremonies every year since 1955. But with the ongoing the Central Vista project initiated by PM Narendra Modi-led NDA government, it is all most likely to change soon.
The current Central Vista is home to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the five-acre home to the President of India, the North and South blocks housing the administrative offices and embassies of the Government of India, the 93-year-old Heritage-I grade building of Parliament House, the iconic India Gate, the National War Memorial, and of course, Rajpath or the ‘Ceremonial Boulevard’. The main objective of the ambitious Central Vista redevelopment plan is to improve the productivity and efficiency of administration by providing it with highly functional and purpose-designed office infrastructure.
The revamp, first conceived in September 2019, is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. It will repurpose the north and south blocks into a national museum, demolish some newer ministry buildings, and erect a vast new secretariat with 10 square doughnut-shaped buildings, along either side of the vista, which will combine all the 51 central government ministries currently scattered across Delhi. An entirely new triangular parliament building will be erected next to the current heritage Parliament House. Plans are also afoot to relocate the vice-president and prime minister’s residences, with the Prime Minister’s Office near the Secretariat. It is said that when completed, the existing green cover along the Central Vista will increase substantially with the proposed addition of more than 500 different trees to the current foliage. The total cost of the grand renovation project was first expected to be INR 20,000 crore by in recent times, the cost of construction of the new Parliament Building has shot up by INR 282 crore, and upon completion of the 40 per cent of the project, the current cost already stands at INR1,339 crore.
While the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is the head project developer and the Tata Projects Limited has won the bid to be the project management company, Narsi Group has undertaken the job of constructing all the loose furniture and entire interior fit-out works in the new Parliament of India building. HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd has been appointed as the chief consultant for Central Vista redevelopment.
The renovation project, however, has ignited a global debate and divided the country into two. The first half includes the government and the stakeholders that believes that the plan will restore the original symmetry and order, strengthen the functioning of the legislature, improve productivity, ensure environmental and socioeconomic sustainability, and promote transit-related development, while respecting the heritage of the buildings and spaces and providing employment opportunity to thousands.
The centre called it ‘an affair of national importance’, while the Prime Minister lauded the project as the symbol of a new and self-reliant India. “It will be a rich testament to India’s cultural heritage and symbolise the aspirations of a new India.” Dr Bimal Patel, director at HCP Design and the master architect behind the project, believes that, “The Central Vista was originally designed with a strong underpinning geometry and splendid symmetry. The proposed master plan respects the existing layout and aims to strengthen it. All the works planned on the Central Vista are designed to respect the heritage buildings, spaces, and their character. The notified heritage buildings being dealt with as part of this plan will be retrofitted in compliance with the prevailing regulations in all aspects.”
It is, however, touted by critics as the government’s ‘vanity project’ by the other half. From concerns raised over the impact on the construction workers due to the COVID situation, the whopping cost of the project while the country’s economy struggles to get through a pandemic, to blaming it for taking away the unique character of Lutyens’ Delhi, the controversies around the big project refuse to die down. Many believe that it will irreversibly deface the city and rob it of its identity and uniqueness. Experts warned that any plan of such magnitude should not be executed in haste, citing instances of great cities like Washington DC and London, that have integrated modern refurbishments with iconic historical structures seamlessly and have befittingly renovated heritage structures to suit our new-age demands. Around 2,000 people filed objections with the DDA and 1,200 were called for hearings.
Unwavered, the construction work for the controversial Central Vista redevelopment project has been going on in the heart of Delhi through the thick of the pandemic, defying all criticism. Now, whether it will change the face of the beloved Lutyen’s Delhi by the next Republic Day celebration for good, or will lose its soul to the modern revamp, is yet to be seen.