Lessons from New Delhi

Posted on August 1st, 2016 by Stephen Thornton

The Crick Centre has launched a major research and public engagement project exploring the planned restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Designing for Democracy. In the latest in our Designing for Democracy blog series Dr Stephen Thornton, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, looks at the debate about refurbishment or rebuilding the Indian Parliament. 

The parliament building in New Delhi – Sansad Bhavan – highlights two particular lessons for those interested in the restoration and modernisation of the Palace of Westminster. Firstly, it reveals how the intentions of a building’s original architects can be subverted, and secondly – as Amy Fedeski’s illuminating blog about Ottawa has already highlighted – it demonstrates that Westminster is not the only parliamentary building struggling to cope with the twenty-first century. As explained in a recent edition of the New Indian Express, India’s Parliament House ‘is falling into disrepair with leaking pipes, damp walls, space crunch and much wear and tear leading many to ask whether it is safe to continue as a building’ (1). ‘Space crunch’, as well as an excellent phrase, is seen as a particular problem as there is a constitutional stipulation that representation is determined on the basis of population size as defined by the latest census, the expectation being that by the next census (likely to be 2021) India’s population will surpass 1.3 billion, challenging China as the world’s most populous country. When the foundation stone of the construction project was laid in 1921 the Indian population was just over 250 million.

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Parliament House. Image courtesy of Dr Stephen Thornton

Despite the decay and pressure for space, there is alarm at the prospect of having to leave the old place: ‘This is part of our tradition and history, and as the oldest member of Parliament, I will protest and oppose any move to bring it down or shift its seat’ warned venerable MP Gurudas Dasgupta in 2012 (2). This emotional attachment to the building is striking because the Council House, as it was originally called, was a product of the British Raj, was clearly not designed as a national parliament for India, and was something of an afterthought during the construction of New Delhi as the new imperial capital during the 1910s and 1920. Moreover, as a clear symbol of its subservient position prior to 1947, the building was set to one side, being overshadowed by the grandiose Viceroy’s Palace (now the official residence of the Indian president). As Lawrence Vale notes, this was no accident, with the upholding of the ‘quiet domination’ of British rule being the overall architectural goal (3).

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Viceroy’s House (now the Rashtrapti Bhawan, The President’s House). Image courtesy of Dr Stephen Thornton

Despite its controversial beginnings, Kent-born Herbert Baker, the architectural partner of the more famous Edwin Lutyens, did design a particularly imposing legislative building, constructed in pink and red sandstone, spread over six acres and built in a distinctive circular shape, this latter feature being one of a number of explicitly Indian motifs incorporated into the building (in this case, the Ashoka Chakra, an emblem most familiar today as part of the Indian flag). And, despite when first opened in 1927 unfriendly comparison being made to a gasometer, over time this building has become a much loved symbol of Indian democracy. This in no small part because of the association made with Jawahalal Nehru’s famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech, which was delivered in the Central Hall of the Parliament House in August 1947. In short, by the second half of the twentieth century, the building had become, as Dinyar Patel notes, ‘a monument to how India wrested representative government from its British masters’ (4).

Thus Delhi’s Parliament House is now widely regarded as ‘a touchstone of India’s democracy’ (5), and has been awarded Heritage Grade-1 status in recognition of its architectural and historical import. However, because of the problems noted earlier, calls for extensive renovation or complete rebuild have been regularly expressed. Similar to the situation in the UK, in recent times the Speaker (in this case, of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house) has driven the debate. In late 2015 the current Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, made the latest move. In a letter to the urban development minister she highlighted the signs of ‘distress’ the now eighty-eight years old building was exhibiting. Mahajan also made the point that the number of staff the building must accommodate – including security personnel and representatives of the media – is now well beyond that originally anticipated; likewise, the range of parliamentary functions, including committee work and security requirements has added to the pressure on space. She also suggested that parliamentarians need to keep up with advances in technology, and the current building could not adapt to such improvements (6).

Sumitra Mahajan. Image courtesy of Narendra Modi via Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, and following a different path to that followed by Speaker Bercow in the UK, Speaker Mahajan has argued that refurbishment of the existing buildings is not a viable option – not least because of the restrictions brought by working on a heritage building –  and rather starting afresh offers better scope for a modern Parliament, one to be ‘equipped with the latest technological tools’. The options the Speaker has put forward are:

a) to build within the Parliament complex itself; or

b) to build on the other side of the grand thoroughfare on which the main government buildings currently stand, a move she suggests that would provide a ‘suitably large area and would enable a free design of a new Parliament House building’ (7).

As yet, opinion on the matter remains divided amongst MPs, and is still being deliberated in various committees. Much rides on this decision. As architect Bimal Patel has written, referring to the situation in Delhi but the point is universal, ‘What we do with our Parliament building will powerfully signify who we are, how we view our past and where we see ourselves going’ (8).

To end, highlighting another bracing similarity with the situation in the UK, the opinion of the Indian public about whether it is worth spending considerable sums of money to provide a modern technological-advanced building for their representatives tends to be shaped first by their assessment of the calibre of those MPs. According to one not untypical contributor to a newspaper conversation on the matter, the current standard of representative does not in fact merit ‘state of the art’ facilities. Rather, ‘all these clowns should be operating out of a torn tent’ (9).

(1) IANS, ‘Parliament House Getting Worn: Should a New One Be Built?’, The New Indian Express, 30 November 2014.

(2) Smriti Kak Ramachandran, ‘We need a new House, but preserve Parliament’, The Hindu, 15 July 2012.

(3) Lawrence Vale, Architecture, Power and National Identity, 2nd ed, 2008, Routledge.

(4) Dinyar Patel, ‘Does India need a new Parliament building? History may have some constructive criticism’, Scroll.in, 4th January 2016.

(5) Ramachandran, ‘We need a new House

(6) PTI, ‘Speaker Sumitra Mahajan writes to Naidu, pitches for new Parliament building’, The Indian Express, 28 December 2015.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Bimal Patel, ‘Preservation vs a clean break’, The Indian Express, 27 January 2016,.

(9) TNN, ‘Speaker suggests building new Parliament House’, The Times of India, 28 December 2015.

 

Biography

Stephen Thornton

Stephen Thornton is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University. His latest book (co-written with Adam Sharr) is entitled Demolishing Whitehall: Leslie Martin Harold Wilson and the Architecture of White Heat, which closely examined plans in the 1960s to bulldoze Victorian administrative palaces such as the Foreign Office and replace them with a concrete, ziggurat-structure megastructure. And what’s not to like about that idea?  He is currently making the most of Cardiff University Research Leave Fellowship which, inter alia, has allowed him to go to India – with indologist Dr James Hegarty of Cardiff University and architect Professor Adam Sharr of Newcastle University – to study various buildings and the political, architectural and cultural stories attached to them.

Notes: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

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