The Provocation to this Essay
The latest issue (No. 61) of the Journal of Landscape Architecture (JLA), India’s premier journal on landscape and environmental design, carries an essay by Dr. Bimal Patel, the head of HCP Design Planning & Management Private Limited (HCP), the firm was chosen by the Government of India to design the redevelopment that will radically transform the Central Vista Precinct, including the Houses of Parliament. The essay speaks of many things that I find interesting, contains many points of value and agreement, but I will not take on many of them here. A section of the essay speaks on the Central Vista project, and this is what I will focus on. Given this is a current and contested public project of significance that is capturing public attention, the timing of this essay requires that, in addition to his specific mentions of the project, general points made by Dr. Patel must also be interpreted in its light.
The title chosen for this essay is “Democracy, Participation, and Consultation”, which repeats the sub-heading of the concluding session of the essay, and one must take note of what is emphasised by this choice of title. We know this title bears the approval of Dr. Patel because, in a breach of established publishing etiquette, an edit proof of the essay sent privately to him for approval was circulated by him among a select group of friends. Consequently, this proof leaked into circulation on social media well before the publication of the journal issue to which he had committed the article.
When this proof reached a group of concerned citizens, architects, environmentalists and other professionals (including myself), we reached out to the editors of JLA. We pointed out that multiple apprehensions have been publicly articulated regarding the Central Vista project, to which no public response has been offered by either the government or the architect, and the project is proceeding with negligible open disclosure. To carry this essay without any counterpoint could be misinterpreted as a tacit endorsement of the project. JLA responded that they wished to take a non-partisan stand on the project, do not aim to take sides, and would cover all sides. They drew our attention to an essay in the previous issue that criticised the process by which the architect for the project was selected and stated their intent to publish counterpoints to Dr. Patel’s essay in the next issue of the journal. We answered that, given the haste with which the government is pushing the project, timing is crucial. Being a quarterly journal, the next issue would appear three months later, and this gap in time would make it difficult to link such counterpoint to this essay. The government is trying to move the project as rapidly as possible toward the tipping point where it becomes a fait accompli, and a three-month window would serve them well. We pointed out that JLA had already taken the call under current circumstances to make this issue a fully digital magazine, and this gave them greater flexibility. In the cause of wider public interest, we appealed to them to delay the release of the issue by a few days so that a counterpoint could be written and added to it. JLA decided not to heed our appeal to wait, and proceeded to publicly release Issue No. 61 on 29 May 2020, carrying Dr. Patel’s essay without any accompanying counterpoint.
This essay is an attempt to offer the public counterpoint we felt was necessary to complement Dr. Patel’s essay. It is being released publicly on the digital portal ArchitectureLive!, with a link provided to JLA Issue 61, so that it can be read in conjunction with Dr. Patel’s article. The essay draws attention to multiple issues related to Central Vista that Dr. Patel has chosen not to speak on, both in his JLA essay and elsewhere: all issues sorely needing exposure to open light, articulated here in a quest to provoke much needed public discussion. The essay evaluates what is publicly visible thus far on HCP’s design proposal and goes on to expresses certain thoughts in response to remarks made by Dr. Patel in the JLA essay. In conclusion, it reflects on what it means for the essay to bear the title “Democracy, Participation and Consultation.”
The Central Vista Redevelopment: The Project Brief and Process
While the Central Vista Precinct came into being as a project to serve the British Empire, it was appropriated by India on gaining independence. For over seven decades it has served as the geographical centre of our democracy, been a significant public landscape, and is thus woven into our history. It would, therefore, be expected that the redevelopment project launched in September 2019 would aim to follow the highest standards of democratic ideals and respect for heritage. Unfortunately, this has not been the case:
- A Vision for Democracy: The spatial configuration and architectural expression of major institutions of governance significantly affect how the government is perceived by citizens, and if our parliament and ministerial offices are to be substantively remodelled, one would have expected that the project be based on a deep and idealistic vision for our democracy that it should express. Given that democracy rests on public debate, such a vision should have been validated by widespread public consultation, and only then should the scope of the redevelopment be framed. This vision should have formed a core element of the design brief that would direct design submissions from architects. To the contrary, the tender notice that formed the basis for selecting architects did not contain any vision for democracy and asked the competing architects to define such a vision through their design proposals. Architects are no experts in governance and political philosophy; democracy is too important a subject to be left to the interpretation of a handful of architects.
- Parliamentary Debate: A democracy transforming its physical infrastructure should first debate that transformation in Parliament. Thus far, redevelopment of the Central Vista Precinct has been launched as a project, architects and designs selected, consequent changes of land-use notified, and designs submitted for environmental approvals without a single minute of parliamentary debate. This disregard and disrespect shown to Parliament, as an institution, is unprecedented in any democracy. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was constituted in 2009 to assess the future spatial needs of Parliament. The BJP reconstituted this JPC on coming to power in 2014. The proceedings of both JPC’s have not been made public, nor has any reason been offered on why the current project escapes JPC oversight.
- A Heritage Audit: When modifications are felt to be necessary to heritage buildings, established good practice is to conduct a heritage audit. The audit assesses the historical and cultural importance of the building, its physical state, its suitability to needs, and its expected life. When built heritage involves important public institutions, recognising that these buildings form an important component of public history, the impulse of the audit is to work towards retaining the buildings in their current form and purpose, unless it can be conclusively proven that there is absolutely no alternative. Recognising that heritage is an issue of public memory rather than private interpretation, such audits are placed in the public domain and openly debated before being finalised. An illuminating example is the Palace of Westminster from which both houses of parliament of the United Kingdom function. Needs have changed and the building (which predates Sansad Bhavan by half a century) is in need of restoration. An audit was conducted and publicly debated. The plan to proceed with the project, including temporary accommodations for the houses of parliament during the refurbishment, was concretised by a vote in the House of Commons. While generalised statements have been made about the inadequacy of Sansad Bhavan and North and South Blocks, no rigorous heritage audit backing those statements has been placed in the public domain. Public suggestions have come from architects as well as senior parliamentarians, proposing that our historic Parliament building should be respected as a sacred site of the birth of Indian democracy, putting forward ideas on how an increased capacity for both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha could be accommodated within the current building. Neither the government nor HCP have offered any substantive response to such proposals.
- Analysis of Requirements: There has been no public release of the analysis of requirements backing such a project. Why is there a need to radically increase the size of the Central Secretariat complex that will house all ministerial offices? Data on government servants published in the latest Delhi Master Plan (2021) demonstrates that the numbers of central government employees within the Delhi jurisdiction has not radically increased over the last four decades. Given that this data is only up to 2003, a substantively increased Central Secretariat would be valid only if there has been a radical spurt in ministerial size after 2003. This would be hard to understand given that since 1991 we have been on a trajectory of reducing centralised control (the ‘license raj’), and there has been no declared policy of reversing this trend. Similarly, the Central Vista Project has not disclosed the calculation on the number of seats needed in Parliament. While we are due very soon for a revised seat delimitation that responds to population growth, the basis for the consequent projection of revised requirements for the Houses of Parliament is unknown. Moreover, several demographic projections have predicted that India’s population growth will peak around 2060 and will begin to decline after that. Is it worth casting aside the deep and valuable history of a current building, and expending money and effort in a totally new parliament building for a need that will start declining within forty years?
- Consolidation of Ministerial Offices: In an era where digital communication and collaboration is becoming more and more effective and prevalent, the need to consolidate all ministries into a single complex of buildings along Rajpath remains unexplained. Here too, there is no detailed analysis validating this. Generalised statements have been made saying it will enhance collaboration and cooperation. A study conducted by Dr. Christopher Alexander and his team at the University of California in Berkeley (Dr. Patel’s alma mater) shows that once the horizontal distance between two members of an office is beyond 400 feet, their frequency of physical interaction drops rapidly to less than once a week. Once the horizontal distance is compounded by vertical segregation into different floors, interaction drops even more substantively. Collaboration is a function of attitude and culture rather than proximity: almost all of us have had experiences of dealing with a governmental office in India to find that people at desks within a few metres of each other do not communicate effectively. In contrast, the digital age has multiple examples of people collaborating effectively over immense distances. Moreover, no disclosure has been made on any analysis of the security hazard of consolidating all ministerial offices in close proximity. Besides the impact of the kind of pandemic we are currently experiencing, such consolidation will facilitate the paralysis of government in a substantive strike by terrorists or a hostile military.
- Data in Public Domain: If democratic transparency is to be valued, all information on this project – plans, backing analysis of needs, statements of vision, heritage audits, costs, time frames – would all be placed in the public domain. None of this has happened, and there is great secrecy. Whatever the public knows is through the information that has leaked from a few presentations to invited audiences, some unofficial data circulated on social media, and partial information given out in interactions with media channels. There is no public exhibition or publicly accessible website where holistic data on the project can be studied by members of the public.
- Public Consultations: Democratic transparency would demand a series of public consultations where feedback from the public is sought. In remarks made in mid-February 2020 to reporters, in response to queries over two petitions filed by activists in the Delhi High Court, the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs claimed that there is total transparency in the Central Vista revamp, mentioning presentations the architect has made to town planners, architects and journalists. A set of presentations made by the architect to small invited audiences are not public consultations, and it is a ruse to pass this off as democratic transparency. The standard should be what is legally mandated for large town planning schemes. The government leads the consultation, not the architect, for many aspects of such schemes involve issues beyond the scope of architecture and urban design. The consultation follows certain standards: (i) consultations are open to all members of the public; (ii) sufficient advance notice to the consultation is given in major newspapers; (iii) data on the issue is released in the public domain so that it can be studied in advance; (iv) there is an established procedure of accountability by which the government is obliged to recognise comments received in the consultation and respond to them. Moreover, since this project is of national importance, consultations should be held all over the country and not just in Delhi. In this day and age, it is also possible to publicly share video recordings of the consultation and allow for a time period in which comments on these recordings can be sent in, so that feedback is received from a constituency larger than what can be accommodated in face-to-face consultations. We are yet to see any public consultation in the true spirit of the term. Despite this, applications have been submitted for statutory permissions on land-use change and environmental approvals. Substantive design changes cannot be made once statutory submissions and notifications have been formally made, unless such submissions and notifications are officially withdrawn.
- Project Speed: The project is being pushed through with extreme haste. Intentions have been declared to complete the new parliament building by 2022 and the entire project by 2024. This kind of speed allows little room for democratic consultation and debate, and the rationale for such deadlines has not been disclosed. A possible reason is the desire to showcase the completed project within the current term of this government. If this is true, it means that the future legacy of a nation will be determined by the electoral imperatives of a single government.
- Change of Land-Use: The design of the development necessitates changes of land-use. This comes under the province of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). DDA did follow the mandated procedure of issuing public notices inviting comment on the proposed changes of land-use. Over 1200 objections were submitted in writing. DDA scheduled the public meetings to hear these comments with less than two days of notice; the short notice making attendance impossible for many who would have wanted to be there. People were allowed in batches and rushed through their statements, as DDA allowed a short two days to hear this large volume of objections. People were only allowed to state their objections, and no response was offered. DDA officials stated they would only hear comments and would not respond to them; an inexplicable statement given this produces no new information beyond what is already documented in written objections and the primary purpose of a public hearing is to facilitate democratic debate. Eventually, DDA proceeded to legally notify the same land-use changes they had initially declared without making any changes, without assigning any reason why all the objections were disregarded. A comment was made that the number of objections should not be considered significant as many of them were repetitions of the same point; failing to recognise that in a democracy it is the number of unified voices that speak that is significant, and not the similarities or differences in what they say. More on this issue of land-use is covered in the discussion below on HCP’s design.
- Environmental Approval: Environmental law in India requires that any project with a built-up area of more than 20,000 square metres must go through an environmental approval process. Smaller projects require the submission of an environmental management plan. Larger projects need to meet stricter requirements, stipulating the submission of an environmental impact analysis, where baseline data for a year preceding the project is presented, along with a commitment to designs and actions that avoid detrimental impact on the environment. It is not permissible to evade these stricter constraints by splitting a large project into smaller components that are submitted separately for approval. The Notice Inviting Bids by which the architect was selected for the project clearly casts the entire Central Vista redevelopment as a single project covering the area where Parliament is situated, the entire stretch of Rajpath from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate plus a few adjacent sites. However, an application for environmental approval was submitted to the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), that should grant the needed sanction, offering the new Parliament Building as a stand-alone project. The submission officially denied any “interlinked projects” or “consequential developments” linked to this project. The application termed the project as an “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Parliament Building” when it is clearly a new construction on a plot of land separate from the land parcel housing Sansad Bhavan. It is difficult to believe that EAC would not be aware of the entirety of the Central Vista Redevelopment; yet they granted their approval and passed it on to the Environment Ministry for final approval. Such approval is highly questionable on legal and environmental grounds, and, if allowed to go through unchallenged, will set a dangerous precedent for environment approvals of large projects in the future.
- Approval of Central Vista Committee: The project also requires the approval of this committee, which consists of government representatives as well as experts from outside government. The new Parliament Building, as a stand-alone project, was also submitted to this committee, which met on 23 April 2020 to review it. This review took place in the middle of the lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The experts from outside government noted that an effective review could not take place over videoconference and requested that the meeting be postponed until the lockdown was lifted. Their request was disregarded, and the meeting proceeded, as scheduled. to grant approval to the project, stating this was done “keeping in view the importance of the project in nation’s interest and time scale for its implementation.” Given the lack of public disclosure on data on the project and no public explanation validating the imposed deadlines, it is hard to understand how the interests of a democratic nation have been assessed.
- Secrecy: The secrecy with which this project is proceeding is inexplicable and has been ingrained right from the start of the project. This can be seen in the secrecy surrounding the project’s cost. The project is being managed by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and was initiated by the public launch of the selection process for an architect through a “Notice Inviting Bids from Consultants” (NIB) issued by CPWD in early September 2019. CPWD has a manual that determines how such bid notices should be released. The manual defines a procedure for estimating the approximate cost of the project and requires administrative sanction for the same before issuing the bid notice. This cost is disclosed in the notice inviting bids, as it is useful to architects in preparing their financial bids, particularly given that the fee had to be quoted as a percentage of the project cost. However, the NIB violated the CPWD Manual by not disclosing any estimated cost of the project. The NIB asked the consultants to split the project cost into three slabs and quote a fee for each slab. An assumption was stated on how weightage would be distributed among these three cost slabs in order to compare financial bids. This assumption leads to a questionable basis for comparing financial bids, as the lowest bidder under one project cost may not be the lowest bidder under another cost. After HCP was awarded the project, and some partial data on the design began to trickle into public perception, one news channel reported that the project cost was Rs. 20,000 crores. There is no official pronouncement that validates this cost, and it is not clear how this channel arrived at this number, but it quickly settled into the popular imagination. The number has been repeated by many other news channels. Senior politicians from the opposition have mentioned it in appeals to the government to cancel or postpone the project as the coronavirus pandemic has precipitated far more urgent and essential expenditure. Many similar public appeals have been issued stating the same cost estimate. Through all this, the government has chosen not to respond at all, not even to contest this estimate as an erroneous claim that is not backed by fact. The silence is deafening, suggesting there appears to be an undisclosed imperative that wishes to keep the project cost out of the public discussion. The only specific disclosure on cost has been for the new Parliament Building, which was originally estimated at Rs. 776 crores, and subsequently updated to Rs. 922 crores.
It could be argued that many of the issues stated above are the responsibility of the government, are beyond the scope of any architect, and must therefore not be linked to an essay by Dr. Patel which has no connection to official governmental pronouncements. However, Dr. Patel has repeatedly defended the project as it is and has also endorsed the ambitious time frames it aims for. HCP, as architects of the project, would have been involved in all the technical documentation necessary for the changes of land-use and the submission made to EAC for environmental approval, lending their weight to a project process that pushes the project into the statutory approvals needed to begin construction before any meaningful public consultations have been held. Therefore, Dr. Patel, as the head of HCP, has become complicit in many of these issues and should speak on them. Moreover, he is not just an architect, he is also a thinking citizen in a democracy, and his involvement in a public project carries a moral imperative as a citizen to consider the impacts it has on democracy.
Comments on HCP’s Design for the Central Vista Redevelopment
So far in this essay, I have spoken on general issues to the project. Now it is necessary to address issues specific to HCP’s design proposals. Given the lack of public disclosure, it is difficult to comment as concept notes, drawings, area statements, and visualisations of the project are not available for detailed scrutiny. Whatever is discussed here, is based on partial data that has leaked out or been shared with media, so a comprehensive analysis is not possible.
- Change of Land-Use: Until now, land-use in the Central Vista precinct has been to a substantial extent under public/semi-public use. HCP’s design proposal has entailed a radical decrease in public usage. This is one point on which there is specific data in the public domain, as DDA has legally notified the changes in land-use necessary to implement the project. Under the DDA notification, over 80 acres of land has been removed from the public/semi-public category. A major portion of it is recategorized as “government office” and given the increasing security cordons around central government offices, this will radically alter the quantum of access to the general public. One 10.5-acre parcel has been converted from a public district park into a high-security zone for the new Parliament Building. This is a fundamental and substantive change in the public character of Central Vista, and the changes in land-use notified by DDA spring specifically from HCP’s design proposals. This is a point that Dr. Patel is yet to substantively address in public.
- Proposal for a New Parliament: The invitation to architects to bid for the project did not stipulate that Parliament must be shifted into a new building. It drew attention to the changing needs of Parliament, the need to refurbish the current Sansad Bhavan given its age, and consequently gave consultants the choice to either “redesign and redevelop the existing Parliament Building with the same outer façade or construct a new state-of-art building located in close vicinity.” HCP has knowingly chosen to adopt the latter choice but has yet to disclose the basis for this choice. HCP has also not publicly responded to suggestions on how changing needs can be met within the existing structure.
- Central Vista as a Landscape: The current aura of Central Vista along Rajpath is that of a landscape, and this aura exists because the horizon is shaped by the top line of the thick avenue of trees on either side of the Rajpath lawns. This happens because buildings behind the trees are low-rise, are set well back, and do not form a continuous wall along Rajpath. HCP has proposed a continuous row of 8-storey governmental offices, broken only by crossroads. While detailed heights have not been made available, office buildings this high will be at least 33 to 35 metres tall, which would make the top profile of these buildings higher than the tree line. While these buildings will be set back behind the trees, their increased height and continuity along Rajpath, in contrast to the existing configuration of buildings, could radically alter Central Vista’s aura of a landscape, as the horizon could now be shaped by building profiles instead of trees. The character of a public space beloved to citizens of Delhi, as well as all of India, may be lost forever. We would need to see street level photo montages that superimpose the new buildings on the existing tree lines to fully understand how Central Vista’s character will be altered. Given the significance of this issue, one would expect that this data would be placed in the public domain so that citizens would understand how a space they have revered over the years is being transformed.
- Public Cultural Space: The radical reduction in public space in the Central Vista Precinct has already been discussed. A key feature of the precinct, that has existed since the original colonial design, is that a significant component of this public space is in cultural institutions. In the Lutyens master plan, the intersection of Rajpath (originally called ‘The King’s Way’) and Janpath (originally called ‘The Queen’s Way’) was earmarked as a cultural hub, with a prominent public cultural institution within each of the quadrants surrounding the intersection. One of them, The National Archives, was designed by Lutyens and was constructed as a part of the colonial project. A second, The National Museum, opened in 1960. The third, The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), was awarded in an international design competition in 1986 to Ralph Lerner, an American architect, but only a portion of the design has been constructed. The fourth quadrant never became a cultural institution and was usurped by ministerial offices. The presence of cultural institutions along a public park is a key element in the heritage of Central Vista. HCP’s design proposal entails the removal of all cultural institutions from Central Vista. The National Museum and IGNCA are both slated for demolition and relocation (and I should emphasise here that IGNCA should be evaluated solely as a national centre for the arts, and not from the viewpoint of who it is named after). The original competition proposal from HCP also suggested the demolition of the National Archives building. When the plan to demolish a Grade-1 Heritage Monument created a furore, the design was revised to retain this building. However, there is still little public clarity on what use this structure will be put to or the extent to which its heritage character will be preserved given its close proximity to large new structures. The revised land-use plan notified by DDA does not preserve this site as a public space, suggesting the plan is to convert the National Archives into a government office. It is also unclear where the National Museum and IGNCA will be relocated. There have been some statements by Dr. Patel that North and South Blocks will be converted into the National Museum, but whether that commitment still stands is unclear given the DDA notification preserves the land-use of these parcels as high-security government offices. The presence of cultural institutions in this heritage precinct is part of the design since its origins, and all these institutions have been there for decades: The National Archives has been there for almost a century, National Museum for sixty years and IGNCA for close to twenty-five years. No reasoning or analysis has been publicly offered by HCP on their choice to excise from Central Vista cultural institutions that are embedded into its history. The way central governmental architecture interfaces with other uses in a capital city acts as a symbol of how the government wishes itself to be perceived. A governmental architecture that is interwoven with public space and public institutions indicates a government that, in true democratic spirit, seeks to be connected with, and accessible to, the nation’s citizens. When governmental architecture crowds out all public institutions, so that the visual spectacle of government dominates the aura of the precinct, one gets the impression that the message is that of a government distant from its citizens, wanting to awe them into acquiescence with a pageant of grandeur and power.
Thoughts Provoked by Statements Made by Dr. Patel in JLA Issue
Reading Dr. Patel’s essay, there are some statements in it that provoke thoughts and questions.
- Public Space: On p.86, the statement is made, “I realised the importance that public spaces play in making cities liveable.” This realisation does not gel with HCP’s decision to radically reduce the extent of public space in Central Vista.
- Respecting Heritage: On p.89, Dr. Patel remarks, “We must respect our heritage and conserve it, but we must also not allow ourselves to be held hostage to it.” This statement by itself need not be contested, as it is untenable to make the rigid claim that Central Vista, because it is a heritage precinct, must be preserved without any change whatsoever. Buildings have aged and needs have changed; we do have the right to modify it. The question is how we do so while respecting heritage and conserving it, as Dr. Patel agrees we must do. As noted earlier in this essay, established good practice in heritage conservation is to base choices on a rigorous heritage audit with the aim of disturbing history as little as possible, where proposals for modification display sensitivity and vision on how heritage will be conserved, and such proposals go through public review and consultation. Dr. Patel, as a qualified and experienced professional, would be well aware of these standards of good practice in heritage conservation, but HCP is yet to publicly disclose the extent to which their design process on Central Vista adhered to such standards.
- Design Competitions for Large Public Projects: On p.92, Dr. Patel argues that when competitions to design large public projects are to be held, it is best that the competition be restricted to large firms, as only they have the depth and diversity of talent needed to execute large projects. Dr. Patel chooses not to address an established global precedent in design competitions for public buildings, where they are held as two-stage competitions. The first stage invites conceptual designs, and is open to all registered architects, however small or large their firms may be, and there is no limit to the number of architects who may compete. A small number of the best schemes are selected for a second stage, where architects are asked to present their designs in further detail, with the final selection being made at the end of this stage. If it is found that an architect qualifying for the second stage does not have the in-house resources to execute a project of this scale and complexity, that architect is required to associate with a large firm, or consortium of firms, that would bring required capabilities to the table. This mode of competitions is often used for public projects where the symbolic importance of the project is very high. The reason for doing this is that large firms, because of the large overhead costs involved in running them, tend to be conservative in their approach, remaining within an architectural language that has sustained them in the past, and are often insufficiently invested into the degree of innovation needed for symbolically significant projects. Smaller and younger firms are more likely to offer greater boldness of innovation, and this two-stage approach achieves the best of both worlds.
- Reordering a Landscape: On p.90, the issue of changes to a landscape are tackled saying, “When considering the reordering of a landscape, so far as the benefits to be gained promise to be more than the costs and so far as we are also taking compensatory steps – planting more trees – to mitigate the costs that the reordering of the landscape entails, we should not stop ourselves from making the change. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten how to think of making trade-offs.” This remark is significant when laid along the point made earlier in this essay on how the aura of Central Vista as a public landscape is being erased. If there is a cost-benefit analysis that has been made, why has it not been opened up to public review? In what has been disclosed so far, the benefits are not visible.
- The Assertions of Activists: On p.97, Dr. Patel claims, “Many professionals resort to ‘activism’ because they are interested in using their professional knowledge to influence projects and policies in the public realm but are convinced that it is not possible for them to do so by engaging with the government as professionals……….having abandoned the creed of the professional to find workable solutions to problems by making meaningful trade-offs, many critics, advocates, and activists end up taking immoderate, partisan, strident and ideologically driven positions. This approach causes more harm than good.” This claim is dangerous on multiple counts. It passes a generalisation on motives without substantiating evidence, tarring all activist professionals with the same brush. It implies that they object to public projects primarily because of a resentment grounded in not having found a way to participate in designing or executing them. And it reinforces a dangerous trend that is taking root in our polity where the motives of activists are foregrounded and impugned in order to deflect attention from the validity of their assertions. All professionals are also citizens. If they are not participants in the design of public projects, when they articulate concerns on a project they must be recognised as citizens rather than professionals. As citizens, they are entitled to deploy their professional knowledge and judgment to substantiate their concerns. When a citizen-activist asserts concerns on a public issue, those concerns must be judged by their own validity and logic and should not be summarily dismissed by discrediting motives of the person asserting them.
- The Relation between Government and Activists: Further on p.97, Dr. Patel observes, “On the other side, many people in government do not believe strongly enough that it makes good sense to constructively engage with the public. There can be many reasons for this, for example: they are deeply suspicious of the motives of immoderate critics, advocates and activists; they have never experienced open and transparent governance because they are themselves from traditional backgrounds where blind faith, obedience and firm, top-down exercise of authority are all seen as virtues; because the organizational set-up they are within has no systems for constructive public engagement. Whatever be the reason, the corrosive dynamic of immoderate criticism, advocacy and activism only reinforces non-transparency and disregard for constructive public engagement wherever it exists in government.” Dr. Patel is not explicit on who he holds accountable for this situation, and from whom he expects leadership to navigate a way out of it. But in this short paragraph, he mentions criticism and activism twice, and in both cases applies the adjective “immoderate”, implying that citizen activists bear a greater share of the blame for the situation and should consequently tone down their ‘immoderation’. To hold public office, or to lead public projects, requires that you should have the ability to manage public criticism, whatever form it may take; as the saying goes, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen!” If activism gets strident, a probable cause is that the required transparency and accessibility in public affairs is not to be found, making it necessary to shout to be heard. Transparent and accessible governance will go a long way in building the public trust that makes government-citizen relationships cordial and non-confrontational, where critique is valued rather than suspected. As the peace activist William Sloane Coffin remarked, “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.”
Democracy, Participation and Consultation
As mentioned at the start of this essay, Dr. Patel approved its title “Democracy, Participation and Consultation.” We have already reviewed democracy and public consultation. Let us now turn our attention to participation.
The most incisive take on participation that I have ever come across is an essay on the subject by the late Iranian economist, Majid Rahnema. This appears in a collection of essays titled “The Development Dictionary”, edited by Wolgang Sachs, examining the various facets of development. Rahnema says that when participation is invoked as a necessary component of democratic development, it tends to be discussed as a singular concept, when it is actually a nuanced notion that has four dimensions:
- A political dimension where the development project is validated by participation.
- An instrumental dimension where participation is seen as a tool for enhancing the effective implementation of development.
- A cognitive dimension where the development discourse itself is constituted and shaped by participation.
- A social dimension where community and public cohesion are constructed and sustained by participation.
Rahnema argues that a full and true democracy would invoke all four dimensions, but it is more common to find some recognition granted to the political dimension, lip service paid to the instrumental dimension, and negligible recognition of the cognitive and social dimensions.
The Central Vista project has been characterised till date by secrecy and opacity, without any open consultation that is truly public in nature, and with no holistic data placed in the public domain. This alone violates democratic principles, a transgression further compounded by disregard of parliamentary debate and unacceptable deviations in statutory approval procedures. And the project is yet to effectively invoke even one of the four dimensions of participation that Majid Rahnema identifies.
In this light, it is with a sense of extreme irony that we read this essay bearing the title “Democracy, Participation and Consultation.”