Does India need a new Parliament building? History may have some constructive criticism
Photo Credit: B Mathur/Reuters
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In the last week of 2015, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan suggested the need for a new Parliament building because the current structure is showing signs of distress. The idea is not new. Her predecessor Meira Kumar had mooted the same proposal a few years ago, adding somewhat colourfully that Sansad Bhavan was “weeping” from overuse and structural deterioration.

The Speakers make a legitimate point – the building has been in existence for close to a century. In 1919, the British Indian government commissioned the structure to house legislative institutions that were barely representative of an undivided India, which was home to only 250 million people.

Nevertheless, it would be a shame if Members of Parliament were to leave their current premises. The Sansad Bhavan has evolved into one of India’s most distinctive buildings, its circular form symbolic of the occasionally roundabout proceedings that take place within its sandstone walls.

Moreover, the building is a monument to how India wrested representative government from its British masters. It has a rich history and before independence, it regularly became a lightning rod for criticism from Britons and Indians alike.

Drawing up the blueprint

The question of semi-representative institutions for India figured prominently in how New Delhi evolved as a capital city in the early 20th century. In late 1912, while drafting the initial layout for New Delhi, British architect Edwin Lutyens mooted the idea of a separate structure for the Indian Legislative Council. The Council, albeit enlarged and strengthened by the recent Morley-Minto reforms, was not much more than a rubber stamp for the government – a glorified debating chamber peopled with British and Indian aristocrats and a sprinkling of moderate nationalists such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, angrily shot down Lutyens’ proposal. “Please dismiss from your mind any question of the Council Chamber not being in Government House,” he replied to the architect. “Wherever Government House may be, there must the Council Chamber be.”

And so, within the blueprints that Lutyens prepared in the mid-1910s, the chamber for the Indian Legislative Council was sited under the roof of the Viceroy’s residence – today’s Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was a stark illustration of the power dynamics of the Raj.

These power dynamics, however, were about to undergo irreversible change. In 1919, the British Parliament passed the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, which nudged along the idea of representative governance for India.

The reforms transformed the subservient Council into an Imperial Legislative Assembly with moderate financial powers. It also created two new bodies: an upper house-like Council of State and a Chamber of Princes.

Montagu-Chelmsford forced Lutyens to go back to his drawing board. The architect erased the council chamber from his blueprints of the Viceroy’s House (examine the footprint of Rashtrapati Bhavan today, and you can discern the gap in the South Wing where the chamber would have stood).

Instead, the government finally saw the wisdom of erecting a separate legislative building and commissioned Herbert Baker – Lutyens’ estranged architectural partner for New Delhi – to build a three-chambered Council House. An awkward triangular plot at the foot of North Block was chosen, all but ensuring that the future Parliament building would appear diminutive against the rising imperial skyline of Raisina Hill.

Criticism from all quarters

Baker’s designs were pilloried from the start. Lutyens blasted the initial proposal for a Y-shaped structure. In response, Baker refashioned the Council House into a circle, which provided for more efficient use of land.

Within the building’s spokes, Baker placed three legislative chambers, each designed in the semicircular Continental manner (the architect worried that the rectangular British model would heighten communal tension by encouraging the creation of a two-party system). At the hub of the circle, he created a domed central hall “which symbolizes united India”.

Such symbolic gestures failed to silence the critics. A special committee, appointed by the government in 1922 to investigate New Delhi’s persistent cost overruns, concluded that Baker’s circular design had greatly magnified both expenses and difficulties in construction. Three committee members even argued that work on the Council House should be abandoned and that a new, more conventionally designed structure be erected somewhere else.

After the building was completed in 1927, it was subjected to more mockery. Philip Sassoon, a British socialite and political figure (also a descendant of the Sassoon merchant family of Bombay), flew his plane over the Council House and said that it “looks like a gasometer – which it is!”

Robert Byron, the author disagreed, finding the structure more reminiscent of a Spanish bullring. Even Baker acknowledged his building’s defects. The dome that rose above the central hall, he admitted, was like a “jack-in-the-box” that struggled unsuccessfully to appear above the Council House’s circular cornice.

A reporter from the Times of India, meanwhile, condemned Herbert Baker for not better taking into account Delhi’s notorious summer heat. The Council House’s distinctive colonnade (deemed “too lofty”) and its large windows were responsible for roasting the building’s inhabitants.

“Throughout the working hours of the day, the sun blazes upon some of those windows and the heat thus precipitated into the chamber when the weather warms up is great, despite the use of blankets to keep it out,” the reporter noted.

By 1928, we read of efforts to install a complicated “refrigerated air” system in the Council House, which ultimately proved successful only in “giving people pneumonic colds and so forth”.

These instances serve as reminder that the Parliament building has been the subject of criticism from the very beginning.

Today’s dilemma

Some of the most interesting criticisms – ones that are also quite relevant today – were from Indian members of the Legislative Assembly. Making use of their limited financial power, Indian legislators in the early 1920s proposed deep cuts in the construction budgets for the Council House and other New Delhi buildings. How could the government justify building such elaborate structures when so much of the country was mired in deep poverty?

New Delhi’s price tag was a “heavy burden to the poor tax-payer,” commented one legislator from the United Provinces. Another legislator from Punjab, Bhai Man Singh, offered far more stinging commentary:

“[W]e have no right to feed our aesthetic sentiments at the expense of the poor tax-payers of India. And I cannot find any justification whatsoever why we should think that we should be better housed… when we really know that the country is actually starving and suffering not only in the sun, but I would say, that many of them are quite unhoused; and they are not even fed. While representing a country like that, I for one am not prepared to advocate that we should at all try to have comforts very soon or even in the near future or at all if need be.”

Today, of course, India is far better housed and fed than it was in the 1920s. Nevertheless, if MPs or bureaucrats decide to seriously take up Sumitra Mahajan’s suggestion for a new Parliament building, they might still want to reflect on these general points raised by Bhai Man Singh.