2/June/2021

An Ode to a Road:
What the Central Vista Project Leaves in its Wake

by: Kartika Menon

 
Photos courtesy of Kartika Menon

In the second week of May, I opened Instagram to see pictures of the Rashtrapati Bhavan lawns at New Delhi being dug up, as construction for the new Central Vista project began in full swing.
The project is a ‘redevelopment’ plan for the Indian ‘power corridor’. The Vista, originally built by the British as the centre of the new imperial capital of Delhi, consists of the stretch of land between Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is the President’s residence, and India Gate, a war memorial for martyrs of the first World War. Vista 2.0 will house the new Parliament building, the Prime Minister’s new residence and office block, as well as a few seven-story high government buildings. In the process, several key buildings of cultural significance including the National Archives, the National Museum, and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Arts will be demolished and rebuilt.

Criticism for the project has come from several stakeholders, and at multiple levels. Ecologists, urban planners, architects, historians, and citizens across the country have protested against the decision of the government to go forth with this project, especially during the pandemic. News reports on the Vista have been flowing in for the past two years - but it’s when I see the photos that it really hits me. The black lamp posts are gone, trees have been felled, and the roads are turned over.



I know I feel a deep visceral anger - at the fact that this project is being undertaken right now, by workers who are provided with no safety equipment, and are bussed in daily in order to complete this ‘essential service’, their labour unrecognised and exploited.
I know I feel a sense of personal loss, for the one city I can call home, now has its heart missing.
I also feel a sense of fear for what this means for public space in the capital, because this road is one of New Delhi’s most historic protest venues.

Starting from independence, this has been the address for union protests gherao-ing the Parliament, JP daring Indira Gandhi to abdicate, Mahendra Singh Tikait’s monumental farmer rally in the eighties, or in December 2012, after the Delhi gangrape. The last time I was there, in February 2020, as riots flared across North East Delhi, people gathered here for a silent vigil. Access to the Gateitself was blocked, heavy police presence and barricades ensured that protestors be confined to a smaller space. I remember walking along Rajpath, hearing the speakers blare Saare Jahaan Se Accha on a loop, while candles flickered in the distance. Nothing felt real.

“I know I feel a sense of personal loss, for the one city I can call home, now has its heart missing.”




Starting from independence, this has been dissent central. In the late fifties, it saw union protests gherao-ing the Parliament. In 1975, right before the declaration of Emergency, it was through these streets that Jayprakash Narayan walked, daring Indira Gandhi to abdicate during the call for ‘Total Revolution’. Then came Mahendra Singh Tikait’s monumental farmer rally in the eighties, which shook the centre as over five lakh farmers gathered to demand better prices for their crops.
Even as the century turned, Rajpath remained significant in its location as an address for protest. In 2006, after the murder of Jessica Lal, people gathered to mourn her death. In December 2012, after the gangrape and murder of Jyoti Singh, protesters took to the streets demanding an overhaul of current rape laws and the government’s poor response to crimes against women.

In many of these instances, protesters were lathi charged, water cannoned, and subjected to police intimidation - and yet they returned, time and again.

The last time I was at India Gate was in February 2020, during the pogrom in North East Delhi, when people gathered here for a silent vigil. I arrived to find that access to the Gate itself was blocked, there was heavy police presence and the barricades ensured that protestors were confined to a smaller space. I remember walking along Rajpath, hearing the speakers blare Saare Jahaan Se Accha on a loop, while candles flickered in the distance. Nothing felt real.


For the past seven decades, people have taken to these very streets, practically knocking on the door of the state to voice their demands. In a world where public protests continue to be one of the main ways in which masses demand accountability from their democratically elected governments, this change is a cause for alarm. Even if, as the planners argue, public space will be extended elsewhere, this location is loaded with symbolic significance. A heavily securitised vista, with ministries and residencies dotting the area, is not likely to be as accessible.

This accessibility isn’t just with reference to organised protest, of course. It’s the everyday relationship that the people of the city share with this space that we’re mourning for - the jamun trees, the banta-filled summers, the many memories that tie us to this place.

When I think of Rajpath, I think of skipping class for ice cream at India Gate, or walking to the National Museum, crossing the lawns and staring at the trees overhead, or driving by at night watching the lamps twinkle in the distance. Mostly, though, I think of a boy I fell for, many moons ago. This road has been, for me, about love. So I don’t quite know how to come to terms with the idea that the next time I am there, under the trees that dot the manicured lawns, stone benches will not lend shelter to pairs of shadows huddled together, illicit love in the heart of the capital - a sight that reminds me that revolution comes in many forms.

The next time I am there, whenever that may be, I will not find hundreds of people walking leisurely along these roads, holding colourful popsicles as popcorn vendors blare music from their stalls and cameras flash as tourists pose for ‘couples photos’. In the winters, there will be no steam billowing from tea kettles, or families settling on the lawns for picnics. Frisbees shan’t swoop through the air, nor will hordes of glistening bubbles blown by little kids as they pedal across the road in their tiny cars.

“Mostly, though, I think of a boy I fell for, many moons ago. This road has been, for me, about love. So I don’t quite know how to come to terms with the idea that the next time I am there, under the trees that dot the manicured lawns, stone benches will not lend shelter to pairs of shadows huddled together, illicit love in the heart of the capital - a sight that reminds me that revolution comes in many forms.”



No, there won’t be any of this. Instead, we’ll have a ‘world-class’ vista, parking facilities, and an underpass.The sheer arrogance and negligence that drives this project is horrifying. This is what took precedence when the whole city was running out of oxygen, overflowing with the ill and the dying, and grappling with the worst health crisis India has seen?

All in the name of development, vanity, and ostensible decolonisation. These roads may have been built to showcase the might of the imperial state - but the sun set, and they left, and even after the new occupants of these grand buildings made themselves at home, these roads haven’t been about them as much as they have been about the people, the coming together of several heterogenous populations, and the making of a space that’s quintessential to the Delhi experience for many.
These roads have belonged to the people who marched, and the people who walked.
They have belonged to the people who make the city.
They belonged to us.

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About the writer With an MA in History, Kartika is coming to terms with her general value-less-ness in the job market, and plans to apply for a PhD to make things worse for herself. She is interested in the intersections between heritage, memory, and politics. She currently spends her days reading, baking, crocheting scarves for her friends, drinking multiple cups of tea, and when the stars align - writing.







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