SC gives go-ahead to Central Vista project

Krishnadas Rajagopal New Delhi | Updated on January 05, 2021

‘Govt did not commit foul play nor illegally carve out Parliament from Central Vista’

The Supreme Court, in a majority judgment, on Tuesday, gave its go-ahead to the multi-crore Central Vista redevelopment project, which proposes to build a new Parliament three times bigger than the existing 93-year-old heritage building and modify the use of 86.1 acres of land to India’s power corridor.

Maintains public trust

In their majority opinion, Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari said the court cannot order the government to desist from spending money on one project and use it for something else. They said the government did not act against public trust.

They brushed aside allegations that the government committed foul play and illegally carved out the Parliament project from the Central Vista project.

The proposed Parliament House has a built-up area of 65,000 sq.m and is scheduled to be completed in 2022, in time for the 75th Independence Day celebrations and the Global G-20 summit. The Central Vista project aims for an “integrated administration block” and “synergised functioning” of Ministries, presently spread across 47 buildings in the region, and in particular, the Central Secretariat block.

Recreational spaces

The majority opinion said the project did not involve any radical change in land use. The proposed change in landscape would not limit recreational spaces for the public.

It dismissed notions that the project was “sui generis” (unique) and deserved a “heightened judicial review”.

“The right to development is a basic human right and no organ of the State is expected to become an impediment in the process of development as long as the government proceeds in accordance with law,” Justice Khanwilkar wrote.

Justice Sanjeev Khanna, in a separate dissent, upheld the project bid notice, award of consultancy, and the order of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, but concluded that the Centre did not take the public into confidence about the changes proposed for Central Vista, an area, which in post-independent India, “inspires and connects common people to the citadels of our democracy”.

Justice Khanna said public consultation was neither sensible or meaningful. He quashed the land change notification and referred the project back to the Heritage Conservation Committee to ensure better public participation.

He said the “access of the common people to the green and other areas in the Central Vista would be curtailed/restricted”.

“The public should be provided not only with information about the draft scheme but also an outline of realistic alternatives and indication of main reasons for the authority’s adoption of the draft scheme,” Justice Khanna noted.

Justice Khanwilkar, however, maintained there was nothing clandestine about the project. He said a personal communication was sent to all the 1,292 objectors.

The proposal was placed before the parliamentary committee, chaired by the Lok Sabha Speaker and constituting MPs of major national political parties, at the inception stage itself. The Lok Sabha Secretariat had approved the budget estimate and concept plan.

But Justice Khanna pointed out that the SMS and emails of the public notice of hearing was sent out at the “last moment”. Objectors did not get reasonable time to orally state their point of view.

The various facets of the project under challenge in court included the change in land use in the Central Vista under the Delhi Development Act, 1957, the permissions and approvals granted by the Central Vista Committee, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), and the clearance/no-objection for construction of a new Parliament House under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

The petitioners had also alleged that the government failed to take prior permission/approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) under the Unified Building Bye-Laws of 2016.

The majority view held the Centre’s exercise of power to change the land use under Section 11A(2) of the Delhi Development Authority Act, 1957 was “just and proper”. Justice Khanwilkar said the environment clearance was valid.

The land use change met the present need for better governance and proper development in the National Capital, Justice Khanwilkar maintained.

”The proposed changes fully gel with the vision of the Master Plan, including the Zonal Plan. Basic principle behind the Master Plan is to tread the path of development... Section 11A(1) empowers the Authority to make modifications in the master plan or the zonal plan,” Justice Khanwilkar wrote.

But Justice Khanna pointed out that the area has several heritage buildings like the Parliament House, National Archives, North Block, South Block, as well as the Central Vista precincts, which are specifically graded as Grade-I.

”Central government could not have notified the modified the land use changes without following the procedure and without prior approval/permission from the Heritage Conservation Committee... The local body – NDMC – should have approached the Heritage Conservation Committee for clarification/confirmation and proceed on their advice,” Justice Khanna said.

The majority opinion found no infirmity in the "no objection" given by the Central Vista Committee, saying it was done after an “elaborate process”.

However, Justice Khanna said four independent representatives were missing at a crucial meeting held on April 30, leaving only the government's men in attendance.

”Thus, the contention that the meeting was a premeditated effort to ensure approval without the presence and participation of representatives of professional bodies is apparent and hardly needs any argument,” Justice Khanna concluded.

Justice Khanwilkar upheld the approval given by the DUAC for the Parliament building. He said the DUAC’s mandate was limited to advice on the overall aesthetic quality of the region. The majority judgment found the allegations of favouritism in the selection of consultant as baseless.

The majority opinion held that as regards the new Parliament building project, the concern of heritage conservation did not arise directly.

The court ,however, took note of the concerns raised that the new Parliament is proposed to be built in a vacant space adjacent to existing Parliament House. It said the HCC was free to consider the proposal in accordance with law.

This did not prevent the court from upholding the prior approval accorded by the HCC before processing the proposal for change of use of the listed heritage building/listed precincts.

It went on to distinguish between 'prior approval' and 'prior permission' of the HCC under the Building Bye Laws of 2016.

”The stage of prior permission is the stage when actual development/redevelopment work is to commence and not the incipient stage of planning and formalisation of the project, including the new Parliament,” the court said.

The court said the government should obtain prior permission of the designated Authority – Commissioner, MCD, Vice Chairman, DDA and Chairman, NDMC – before the actual development/redevelopment work, if it has not already obtained it.

Published on January 05, 2021

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