At a time when India is reeling under the financial and societal effects of an economic slowdown and a pandemic, the Central Vista plan for Delhi is an unaffordable folly
The national capital's Rs 20,000 crore controversial Central Vista plan is back in the news. This is at a time when the nation is battling the Coronavirus pandemic and trying to defuse an armed conflagration in the Galwan Valley on Ladakh front — a so-called triple whammy.
Last week, the Supreme Court refused to give a stay on work for the Central Vista project by posing a rhetoric question as to whether it could "restrain the authorities from acting as per law." Nevertheless, it posted the case for hearing after July 6 when the court reopens after a two-week vacation.
The Court led by Justice AM Khanwilkar with Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna was hearing advocate Shikhil Suri, acting on behalf of the petitioner Rajiv Suri, who said the Government was "churning out approvals" for the project even as the case was still pending in the Court. Appearing for another petitioner, senior advocate Sanjay Hegde said clearances for the project were being sought and given continuously.
For the Government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asked why the petitioner had a problem with the project which envisaged only Parliament construction and sought time to file a consolidated reply to various objections and allegations. The Court directed the Government to file its reply by July 3 for the Court's consideration when it reopens after the vacation.
Advocate Suri argued that the entire matter in the Central Vista redevelopment project had been "clothed in secrecy and opacity" and also stated that "more sinister are the murky, dubious and suspicious events leading up to the present-day events." Foremost in such regards is the "malevolent and malicious" manner in which the Central Government decided in May 2015 to withdraw India's nomination to attain a World Heritage City tag for Delhi from UNESCO, a quest it had been pursuing for decades.
The proceedings of the court and its final verdict will be eagerly awaited in the coming days, months or whatever time it takes, yet the public concern over this matter refuses to subside. In fact, it continues to grow. India's withdrawal from the nomination process for the UNESCO World Heritage City tag for Delhi after the arrival of BJP government is viewed as rather surreptitious. Indeed many see it as a blow to national pride and the whole matter is being seen as a political ploy aimed at creating a monument to the ruling party's hubris.
What's more, it comes at a time when the nation is in dire straits, reeling under the impact of an unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic. The country is crying-out for hospital facilities, oxygen equipment and ventilators. As one critic said, the grand sum of Rs 20,000 crore could buy 14 lakh ventilators, sorely needed to save the lives of people. There is a massive shortfall in the number of basic hospital beds and other equipment. The disaster that followed the March 25 lockdown imposed after a four- hour notice is unfolding with relentless ferocity.
The pandemic is gathering speed and there is panic all around. Quarantine facilities are buckling under pressure; government and private hospitals are haggling over the prices or charges for various stages of treatment.
The rates are said to have been capped at between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 a day, including entry-level facilities, for an isolation bed; between Rs 13,000 and Rs 15,000 a day for a bed at an ICU (intensive care unit); and between Rs 15,000 and Rs 18,000 a day for an ICU bed with a ventilator. Exorbitant fees were being demanded before the capping of charges was announced in Delhi. The story has its variations in Mumbai, Chennai and other cities and towns. The gap between public confidence and ground reality could be yet another story of pot luck.
For a Government to be pursuing grandiose vista plans in the middle of a pandemic is simply beyond belief. India has taken huge loans from international banks to shore up its economy, already reeling under the impact of a global financial slowdown. The Asian Development Bank came to our rescue with a loan worth $1.5 billion to fight COVID-19 in April this year. Days earlier, another loan worth $1 billion dollars was arranged from the World Bank to keep the country afloat to help protect lives and livelihoods. The loan was granted to "accelerate India's COVID-19 Social Protection Response Programme." It is aimed at integrating India's plethora of fragmented social security programmers for migrant workers caught up in the recent upheaval and to rebalance safety nets between rural and urban India.
Clearly, the country needs all the resources, both external and internal, to tide over the situation. At such a time, spending Rs 20,000 crore on a grand vista at this juncture is nothing but sheer profligacy.
The national MPLADS programme which allows MPs to spend Rs 5 crore each per year for development works in their constituencies and local areas, amounting to thousands of crores, has been suspended as an overall austerity measure. As a gesture of solidarity, President Ram Nath Kovind has decided to forgo 30 per cent of his salary for the whole year while directing other officials to adopt similar austerity measures. The domestic tours of the President have been substantially reduced, guest lists and food menu at official ceremonies cut, and plans to acquire a new presidential limousine valued at around Rs 10 crore, deferred.
While the President goes about setting an admirable example to conserve resources for the most immediate requirements of the nation, is it too much to expect from the powers that be to drop the grandiose Central Vista plan which envisages a new residence for the Prime Minister and another for the Vice-President, a new Parliament building, and other 'monuments' to the ruling party.
There have been nine Incarnations of Delhi from Indraprastha to Shahjahanabad to Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi. If the BJP wants to leave its stamp on the city's history map, let it build an entirely new city — a tenth Delhi, not do a paltry rejig and spoil existing beauty. All the same, perhaps there is a time for everything. But now is certainly not that time.
The writer is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal