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The Lutyens obsession

It has been reported that the Union urban development ministry has been considering how it can build a vast new office complex in the middle of New Delhi. The area, now inhabited by the leaders of the Republic of India, does indeed deserve a bit of attention. But it is doubtful whether this is the best way to go about it. Designed by a team led by Edwin Lutyens, and therefore called the Lutyens Bungalow Zone, or LBZ, the area is a leftover of a different age, and does not belong in the centre of a 21st-century capital, or indeed of any city with almost 18 million inhabitants. But dragging it into the post-colonial age will require more than a grandiose building project that will merely serve to reinforce perceptions that the central Indian government is overstaffed and overindulgent of its own personnel’s needs. The new complex, according to reports, is to be spread over 10 acres, and to house offices for thousands of bureaucrats.

It is true that too few people live and work in the centre of Delhi. But there are simple ways in which to increase the population density of the LBZ. One way would be to replace the crumbling and unsafe bungalows with three- or four-storeyed living quarters for senior bureaucrats. The vast lawns – an alien and water-hungry imposition on the natural landscape of semi-arid Delhi – could go, and be replaced by more dwellings. Thus no trees would need to be cut to increase the population density of the LBZ. The insulation of Lutyens’ Delhi’s residents from the real pressures of urban India – the power-cuts, the spiralling rents, the water problems, the traffic – are a major factor behind the Indian political and bureaucratic elite’s contempt for basic urban issues. And it also leads to the justifiable perception that India’s people are poorly served by leaders who are far too distant from them – a perception that enhances the critical lack of legitimacy currently being faced by the Indian state.

When it comes to office buildings, surely the priority should be to renovate – or ideally, replace – the creaking eyesores built in the heyday of the socialist state. Yojana Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan, and other such structures near the Central Secretariat may house some of India’s most poweful people, but are aesthetic and functional disgraces. They are energy inefficient and uncomfortable. If office space in central Delhi is a concern, that is where the government should start work. The idea that “another” Central Secretariat is needed – the idea being pushed by the department of personnel and training – is wasteful and silly.

Indeed, it is a token of the luxury-loving nature of India’s bureaucratic masters that they are unwilling to build a new complex in, say, the vast stretches of land available to the Central government in Ghitorni, on the road between Delhi and Gurgaon. All sensible urban planning suggests that to decongest cities it is important to have multiple hubs. A new central government office complex to the south of the city would serve as such a hub. But that is considered unfeasible for India’s civil servants – heaven forbid if they spend even a fraction as long commuting as the people they rule! The absurd argument that is stated is that government functionaries should work near each other. Well, perhaps the Indian government can look to other such capitals for examples. The US government has dozens of locations in and around Washington, miles and miles apart, many in suburbs. Even individual departments, like the Treasury, could have offices in Maryland suburbs like Hyattsville. Somehow the US government manages; such things as telephones and internet no doubt help. India’s government should learn, and end its obsession with Lutyens’ Delhi.

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