Stop Central Vista Project, build hospitals

Mohammed Wajihuddin
Mohammed Wajihuddin

Amidst India’s worst health crises, the Centre is coming up with a powerful politician’s pet project–the Central Vista Redevelopment Project (CVRP)–in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. To be prepared at Rs 20, 000 crore, the project will have a new Parliament House, a new residence for the PM, a new residence and office for the Vice-President and a Central Secretariat housing all the ministries. The existing British-era Parliament House which is not even a century old and is in good condition will be turned into a museum. So will be the North and South  blocks. The old Raisina Hill, where the massive, glittering complex is coming up, will never be the same again.

As India gasps for breath and the devastating pandemic-related deaths pile up, massive earth movers, giant drilling machines and other tools hungrily hollow out the solid surface between the iconic Rashtrapati Bhavan and the historic India Gate. According to one report, around 4000 ancient trees have already been cut to make space for the vanity project.

What should be the country’s priorities today?

It should be to provide medical oxygen, beds and ventilators and more ICUs at hospitals. Because every life matters. Because life is precious. Allowing the people to die for want of oxygen and good hospitals and building a mega project which is not essential is a joke on the over one billion people of India. If you can’t give them oxygen and life-saving drugs, don’t rub salt into their wounds.

Many mediaeval monarchs and emperors became megalomaniacs because they wrongly believed they had divine rights to rule and do whatever they or their slavish coterie of advisors thought was right. They wanted posterity to remember them through buildings and monuments. They built opulent palaces and, since they lived in eternal fear of invasion from enemies, they fortified their seats of power. To many, building mahals and mausoleums were more important than building schools, colleges and universities. Instead of investing in research and discoveries that could have helped advance human civilisation, they filled stables with some of the costliest and fastest horses and harems with beauties. They exploited men and women both and whoever raised a finger had to rot in prison or face the firing squad.

Instead of investing in making life comfortable for the masses, these royals spent shamelessly on the ostentatious living quarters for themselves and their kith and kin. The gap between living standards of the royals and the rayots was gigantic. Many of the once splendid palaces, naubat khanas, mahals and qilas are ruins today. They suffer official apathy and criminal indifference from the agencies tasked to take care of them. Rulers with sense of public welfare are remembered with respect. Megalomaniacs with huge egos and short vision get tossed off the pedestals easily.

But here the purpose is not so much to improve the seating capacity in the Parliament House or the Central Secretariat as it is to assert the “coming of age” of the new rulers. It is to announce the shedding of the “periods of slavery” and arrival of a new era of majoritarian rule.

Emperors are prone to try and leave a mark of their suzerainty through stones. The new emperor in Delhi has similar wish and is moving ahead with the mega project regardless of experts and economists telling him to halt it.

Lakhs of our youth have lost jobs since the first lockdown was announced in March 24, 2020. With hundreds of factories shut, malls and shops shuttered, the country’s economy is in doldrums. Education is in a shambles as schools and colleges have been ordered closed and important exams like NEET and IIT Mains postponed. Never in my life had I imagined that my daughter would pass the Class 10 without sitting for its exam. These steps were taken to save students and teachers from getting infected. Millions in 18+ age group in the country are yet to be vaccinated before we get herd immunity in order to curb the raging pandemic.

Yet, the priority is not to create mass jobs and remove pervasive poverty. People in my Bihar village tell me that several families there struggle to get even a square meal. The heartless, brutal regime of Nitish Kumar has not paid salaries to teachers for a couple of months and a dry Eid next week stares in the face of lakhs of state government employees. Millions of migrants who left the cities for their villages fearing starvation as the lockdown was imposed in the wake of the second wave of the pandemic last month face starvation there too. As the mercury rises in May and fields become parched, there is almost nothing that can keep the farmers and farm workers gainfully engaged in their villages in the next few months. Yes some state government can hold local elections just as India’s largest state, UP, did. Coronavirus ki aisi taisi.

Subah ka rootha shaam ko laut aaye toh rootha nahin kah lata, ‘ goes a saying in Urdu/Hindi. A mistake corrected in time is not a mistake. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project needs to be shelved. Stop it. Redirect the funds earmarked for this vanity project to create health infrastructure. Create oxygen plants, hospitals, testing facilities on massive scale. Add a new wing to the existing Parliament Building if we really need more space. And the PM residence is in a good enough condition and the PM of a democratic Republic doesn’t need a new, fancy address. At least not till our economy has rebounded. There is no shame in acknowledging a mistake and doing course correction. Put the project on the back burner. The trees that you ordered to be axed can be planted elsewhere. But the lives that we have lost and will lose due to shortage of medical oxygen cannot be brought back. Save the lives. The vanity project can wait.

Koi sune na sune inquilab ki awaaz
Pukarne ki had tak toh hum pukar aaye
(I don’t know if anyone cares to hear my call for revolution/I gave the call to the extent that I could)

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog