Rajpath has evidently replaced Lodhi Gardens and even Sunder Nursery in the affections of the chatterati, which is why there has been a surfeit of lamentation over the future of this central spine of New Delhi. No wonder all manner of grim fairy tales are being spun and disseminated about the boulevard that would confound not only Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, but also Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the original iconoclast.
Of course, the discourse has been progressing downhill, quite literally. Beginning with the purported demolition of North and South Blocks atop Raisina to the need for the new Parliament below and thence, to the supposedly imminent destruction of the trees and waterbodies of Rajpath and the post-Lutyens effulgence of revivalist Rajput-Mughal and socialist prefab Moscow apartment block type government office buildings on its flanks.
After all, the other two major Kingsways in the Anglophere that were conceptualised and laid out around the same time that Lutyens was planning a third one on a sparsely populated stretch beside the Yamuna have faded into insignificance.
The Kingsway in London that ends in Aldwych not far from where India House was also built (and currently houses the Indian High Commission) is now marked on most city maps as the A4200. It was opened by the ‘King Emperor’ Edward VII the year Bengal was partitioned—1905—and swept away not only some slums but areas that dated back to the 1500s, all to burnish the image of London as the capital of an ascendant British Empire.
Across the Atlantic in Canada, another Kingsway took shape a little less than a decade later, between Vancouver and Burnaby in British Columbia, traversing an ancient route once frequented by the indigenous people of the region. Today, even though the country still retains its dominion status, the Kingsway has also been subsumed into the larger Canadian highway system and shows no evidence of its connection to anything remotely imperial.
By that count, Lutyens’ Kingsway, while smoothly transitioning into a post-independence avatar as Rajpath has retained, or at least, regained its relevance as a centrepoint, even as Queensway has been demoted to a decidedly egalitarian avenue called Janpath. At one point in its life, the lawns of Rajpath—as the locus of the ‘Boat Club’—had indeed been the focal point of protest, but never about the contours of its own future as it is now.
Yet not many realise (and a few ignore) the fact that Lutyens’ original vision for the greenery of Central Vista was altered first not long after the British Raj officially shifted from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1931. By 1933, courtesy the Raja of Bhavnagar, a multipurpose Irwin Amphitheatre (now Dhyan Chand National Stadium) came up on the spot where he had envisaged a public garden that would lead onto Purana Qila and the Yamuna riverfront.
This breach of Lutyens’ plan was followed by the redevelopment of that stadium for the Asian Games in 1951, in a mere 300 days from the time Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1950. This success is what must have led to our first prime minister to embark on another speed building project: the commissioning and opening of Vigyan Bhavan on Rajpath (altering Lutyens’ plan again) and Ashok Hotel in 15 months for the 1956 UNESCO conference.
If anything, the New India Gardens now earmarked for a spot behind Purana Qila, on the same axis as the Central Vista, is a fulfilment of Lutyens’ public gardens plan. Of course, sceptics have interpreted that as well as the 45-acre National Arboretum to be created behind Rashtrapati Bhavan—both totally accessible to the public—as a feint by the government to push its line that the Central Vista redevelopment will not reduce green spaces.
The line being peddled is that the Arboretum is a devious plan to encroach on the forest area behind Rashtrapati Bhavan and “turn it into a manicured space” and the Nav Bharat (New India) Park will be yet another assault on the Yamuna flood plains. The aam janta who wait a whole year to see Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Mughal Gardens when it opens for barely a month will surely regard the Arboretum (to be open year-round) in a different light.
Which brings us to the moot question: will the green spaces of Rajpath really be reduced in the new plan? A few weeks ago, the war cry was Protect Rajpath’s Jamun Trees as photos of dug up lawns implied uprooted trees too. That proved to be wrong as 18 jamun trees (out of 1,000-odd) are to be transplanted—not even chopped down—and the lawns will be re-grassed as soon as underground utilities are laid. So the cry is now more broadbased.
The protesters aver that projections show the green swathe of Central Vista will be trimmed to half its breadth, and lawns will become parking lots. Some are also saying the inner courtyards of government buildings will be counted as open public spaces to make up for that insidious takeover. The protesters appear to be unaware—or will not admit to noticing—that the process of encroaching on Rajpath’s greenery began long ago.
More than one of the government office blocks and even the National Museum have spilled over the original boundaries of the lawns on either side of Rajpath as per Lutyens’ original plan. And sundry ad hoc parking lots have also sprung up behind their beloved jamun trees. While the latter can possibly be blamed on the apathy of Rajpath’s official guardians, the former cannot have happened without the connivance of government functionaries.
So the fact that the government office plots will actually be pushed back to their original alignment and parking will be accommodated inside the compounds, thereby returning an additional 10 acres of lawns to the public should bring cheer to the Save Rajpath From Vandals Movement. Instead, there is stubborn scepticism and an inexplicable reiteration of the old chestnut that public access will soon be totally restricted in that area.
As is evident in the redevelopment plan for the Central Vista, the government office buildings and their parking spaces will stay within the original boundaries, so the area available to the public will not decrease. Moreover, as there will be provision for underground connections between those buildings, the frequent logjams due to “VIP movement” in those areas will reduce, making the non-VIP movement (of the public) infinitely easier.
That same public will be happy with the prospect of better pavements and lighting, underground road crossing and ten spots along Rajpath for their favourite ice cream vendors. But the government should consider providing for a weekly organic farmers market for the concerned chatterati to get their fix of runny honey and portobello mushrooms. Just such a market has done wonders to change the narrative on Sunder Nursery’s redevelopment!