In 1919, the administration in Delhi was facing a logistical problem. When the plans for the new capital city of Delhi were being drawn up in 1913, it was visualised that sprawling Governor General’s house (now Rashtrapati Bhawan) would also have, within it, the existing unicameral legislative council.
This made sense because the council was small. In the summer months, its meetings were held in the viceregal lodge in Shimla. And in the winter months, the council met in its chambers inside a building (the Delhi Legislative Assembly), which also housed the government secretariat. But the breadcrumbs of self-government flowing from the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918 resulted in the creation of a bicameral legislature.
This meant that the administration had to find space for legislative chambers for two houses. The challenge was with respect to the newly-created larger legislative assembly with 140 members. The administration came up with two proposals. One was to house the legislative assembly in a shamiana (tent). And the other was to remodel an existing building to accommodate the legislative assembly. The first proposal was rejected as it was felt that accommodating “members under canvas would tend to give the new legislative procedure a start under unfavourable conditions”. The administration went ahead with the second proposal and constructed a larger council chamber in the secretariat building. In 1921, this became the home of the first central legislative assembly.
By this time, Delhi’s architects Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens were arguing over the plans for a permanent building to house the legislature. Baker proposed a triangular, while Lutyens was in favour of a circular, colosseum design for the Parliament building. There was also disagreement on the location of the building. Lutyens preferred the current location of the Parliament House, while Baker wanted to explore alternative sites away from the secretariats on Raisina Hill. In the end, Lutyens prevailed and the committee overseeing the construction of the new capital city went with the circular design. A triumphant Lutyens went on to state, “I have got the building where I want it & the shape I want it.” The building whose foundation stone was laid in 1921 would take six years to build.
But the need for the upkeep, repurposing and enhancements in the building would become evident early on. A few months after its inauguration, a tile from the roof of the assembly chamber fell during the middle of a debate. Later that year, cracks developed along the arched roofs of the corridors of the newly constructed building. Two years later, an attic storey, made from plaster, was added to the building to accommodate the growing number of assembly staff. At the dawn of Independence, the logistical challenges of accommodating the 300-plus members of the Constituent Assembly would resurface. This meant remodelling the library and converting it into Constitution Hall (central hall) for the making of the Constitution. To cope with the harsh Delhi winter, benches with electrical heating were installed in this hall.
There were other parts of the building where repurposing took place. The erstwhile chamber of princes was converted into a courtroom. And it was here that the Federal Court and then the Supreme Court sat till 1958. The Federal Public Service Commission, the precursor to the Union Public Service Commission, also functioned from Parliament for a few years before moving to its own building in 1952. The increased responsibilities of the legislature of a newly-independent country meant a larger parliamentary staff. This led to the construction of new secretariat buildings and a separate building for the parliamentary library. More space for staff and meeting rooms for parliamentary committees has eased some of the pressure on the main Parliament building.
There is still a growing need for space in the Parliament complex. Members of Parliament (MPs) sit cheek by jowl in the chambers of the two houses. They don’t have office space and have to meet visitors in the parliament canteen or at their residence. Modern technology, air-conditioning, live TV, connected computers have all played havoc with the interiors of the 90-year-old building. The attic of the building can only be accessed by elevators and a narrow staircase, which presents a risk for staff and MPs working in that area. Former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar said that the building is “weeping”. Her successor Sumitra Mahajan, in a letter to the government, stated that the building was showing “signs of distress”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be laying the foundation stone of the new Parliament building on Thursday. Questions have been raised on the need and other matters related to the new building. Some of these questions are being heard by the Supreme Court. Depending on the judicial outcome, a new state-of-the-art building or the existing one being remodelled will address the infrastructure aspect of the strengthening of our Parliament. A strong and effective legislature will also require modernisation of rules in its functioning along with vigilant and participative MPs who take their legislative responsibilities seriously.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research
The views expressed are personal