Scholars want PM to halt ‘planned demolition’ of cultural institutions to build Central Vista

In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a global community of historians and curators has criticized the Central Vista project in the “midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives.” These scholars have expressed in particular their shared concern about the planned demolition of the National Museum, the National Archives and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and the relocation of the invaluable repositories of these key cultural institutions in a safe and responsible manner. A report by ADITI CHAHAR

A group of 76 public intellectuals and scholars from India and abroad, have called for a halt and reconsideration of the government’s Central Vista redevelopment project. The open letter addressed to the Prime Minister says, “escalating health crisis calls for a pause and a reset” of this “extravagant project”.

The signatories to the letter are: Ernst van Alphen, Leiden University, Sean Anderson, Museum of Modern Art, Arjun Appadurai, New York University, Catherine Asher, University of Minnesota (emerita), Frederick M. Asher, University of Minnesota (emeritus), Sussan Babaie, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Mieke G. Bal, Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA), Tim Barringer, Yale University, Homi Bhabha, Harvard University, Bronwen Bledsoe, Cornell University, Sugata Bose, Harvard University, John H. Bowles, Writer and curator, Arpana Caur, Artist, Delhi, Prem Chandavarkar, Architect and independent researcher, Bengaluru, Naman Ahuja, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago, Partha Chatterjee, Columbia University, Divya Cherian, Princeton University, Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University, Asok Das, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur (retired), Catherine David, MNAM-Centre Pompidou, Paris, Rohit De, Yale University, Vidya Dehejia, Columbia University, Chris Dercon, Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris, Faisal Devji, University of Oxford, Bernard Fibicher, Fine Arts

Museum Lausanne, Supriya Gandhi, Yale University, Annapurna Garimella, art historian, Hyderabad, Alain George, University of Oxford, Ramachandra Guha, Historian and biographer, Narayani Gupta, Jamia Millia Islamia (retired), Vivek Gupta, University of Cambridge, Navina Najat Haidar, Art historian and curator, Githa Hariharan, Writer, John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College, Columbia University, Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University (emeritus), Kajri Jain, University of Toronto, Sir Anish Kapoor, Artist, Geeta Kapur, Art critic and curator, Sudipta Kaviraj, Columbia University, Madhu Khanna, Historian of religion and art, Rajeev Kinra, Northwestern University, Pradip Krishen, Filmmaker and environmentalist, Aparna Kumar, University College London, Glenn Lowry, Museum of Modern Art, Sir James Mallinson, SOAS, University of London, Saloni Mathur, University of California, Los Angeles, Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, A.G. Krishna Menon, Architect, urban planner, and conservation consultant, Parul Dave Mukherji, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Neeti Nair, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Ashis Nandy, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Gülru Necipoğlu, Harvard University, Francesca Orsini, SOAS, University of London (emerita), Alka Patel, University of California, Irvine, Orhan Pamuk, Writer, Columbia University, Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University, Gyan Prakash, Princeton University, Suhanya Raffel, M+ Museum, Hong Kong, Ram Rahman, photographer, SAHMAT (The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), Sugata Ray, University of California, Berkeley, Scott Redford, SOAS, University of London, D. Fairchild Ruggles, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Chaitanya Sambrani, Australian National University, G. M. Sheikh, Artist, Vadodara, Ashok Vajpeyi, Poet, critic and essayist, James Wescoat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (emeritus)

Joint statement

We, call for an immediate halt to the Central Vista Redevelopment Project undertaken by the Government of India, which commenced in December 2020. The designation of this scheme as an ‘essential service’ invites fresh scrutiny of the plan. It is especially troubling that this extravagant project is moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives.

We would like to draw particular attention to the upcoming demolition and relocation of the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe. In fact, preparations to raze the IGNCA complex are already underway. There was a clear logic in the urban planning of Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival and historical centres in close proximity to each other. The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not demolition. The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irrevocable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built over decades.

The Central Vista demolition threatens the collections of these heritage repositories. We are concerned that such a shift would impact the state of conservation of several objects. Even under normal circumstances, it would be a complex and risky operation to shift the diverse and irreplaceable treasures of the National Museum, the archival records held in the National Archives, and the manuscript holdings of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The current pandemic only exacerbates these risks.

The unilateral and hasty implementation of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project runs contrary to established practices worldwide. Across the globe, such plans to expand, relocate, repurpose or redesign key cultural institutions are preceded by widespread consultations and consensus building before finalizing the design, let alone moving collections indefinitely. The details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque. It is unclear, for example, how the National Museum art objects will be stored and eventually displayed in the office complex of the North and South Blocks, as is planned. As the National Museum’s collection still lacks a complete inventory of its holdings, this relocation is hazardous.

The extent to which these collections will continue to be publicly accessible is also unknown. These demolitions are only one part of a mammoth undertaking that involves constructing a lavish new Parliament and turning open space into office blocks. The project as a whole will forever alter the historic urban plan of Lutyens’ Delhi, a piece of world heritage that has become an integral part of the cultural and political life of independent India.

The current escalating health crisis calls for a pause and a reset. For the short term, this project should be immediately suspended, and all priorities and resources directed to combating the pandemic. In the long term, however, this hiatus should be followed by extensive public consultations so that the future of India’s institutions, heritage architecture, and historical collections can be determined through a democratic process.

Opposition parties write:

In the meanwhile, leaders of 12 major opposition parties have also written to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking a free mass vaccination drive against Covid-19, and a suspension of the central vista revamp project to aid the fight against the pandemic. In a joint letter to PM Modi, the opposition leaders also demanded that the government take immediate action as the ferocious second wave of Covid-19 rips through India, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and thousands dead. The leaders accused the government of ignoring their suggestions and said it had compounded the situation to reach “such an apocalyptic human tragedy”.

The leaders suggested providing food grains to the needy and giving 6,000 per month to the unemployed. The leaders have also demanded a repeal of the three Central farm laws which, they claimed, will help protect lakhs of ‘annadatas’ (food-growers) from becoming the victims of pandemic. A large number of farmers are sitting in protest at three borders of Delhi, seeking the farm laws passed by Parliament in September last year be scrapped. The list of do-s they sent includes: Central procurement of vaccines from all available sources — global and domestic, immediate free, universal mass vaccination campaign, compulsory licensing to expand domestic vaccine production and spending the 35,000 crore budgetary allocation for vaccines.

Stopping the Central Vista construction and using the money for oxygen and vaccines and releasing all money held in the “unaccounted private trust fund”, PM Cares to buy vaccines, oxygen and medical equipment, 6,000 per month for the unemployed, free distribution of food grain to the needy and repeal of farm laws to protect farmers falling victim to Covid are in the list of opposition leaders demands.

Opposition signatories

The signatories to the joint letter include Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister and JDS leader H D Deve Gowda and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Others include chief ministers Uddhav Thackeray (Shiv Sena), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), MK Stalin (DMK), and Hemant Soren (JMM). Former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah (NC) and Akhilesh Yadav (SP) have also signed the letter, alongside Tejashwi Yadav (RJD), D Raja (CPI) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M) are also part of it.