The Supreme Court on Tuesday in a 2:1 majority verdict gave the green signal for the proposed Central Vista project which had come under intense criticism for alleged violation of land use and environmental norms. Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari held that "exercise of the power" under the Delhi Development Authority Act was just and proper. The recommendations of Environmental Clearance by the expert appraisal committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) was also just and proper in accordance with law.
"Selection and appointment of the environmental consultant in the case is held to be just and proper," Justice AM Khanwilkar said reading out the majority opinion. Justice Khanwilkar also gave additional directions to the MoEF regarding the installation of smog towers as an integral part of proposed projects especially in cities with a "bad track record" with regards to pollution.
Justice Sanjiv Khanna agreed with the majority on the selection and appointment of the architects tasked with the mammoth project. However, he dissented with the majority on the question of change in land use observing that it was "bad in law". There is no intelligible and adequate disclosure for public participation and no prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC), Justice Khanna said. The lone dissenter remitted the matter back to the HCC with a number of directions with regards to disclosure and public hearing. I have not gone into merits of the case, because it is for the heritage committee to do so, Justice Khanna said reading his opinion.
"On the environmental clearance aspect, the approval is a non-speaking order and accordingly it is remitted," he added.
The verdict by the three-judge Bench comes two months after it had reserved the matter on November 5, 2020.
The Central Vista redevelopment project is a mammoth plan which envisages a new triangular Parliament building, a common central secretariat and a complete revamp of the three-km-long Rajpath which starts from Rashtrapati Bhavan and ends at India Gate. The Centre has also proposed new residential complex for the Prime Minister and the Vice President along with several new offices. The completion of the first phase was scheduled for the country's 75th Independence Day celebrations on August 15, 2022.
Buildings an integral part of India's constitutional heritage: Architect to SC
Advocate Rajeev Suri had first challenged the redevelopment plan in the Delhi High court, however, during the course of appeals, the Supreme Court transferred the matters to itself. The petitioners—Lt. Col. Anuj Srivastava (Retd), architects AG Krishna Menon and Kavas Kapadia, and former bureaucrat Meena Gupta—also challenged teh December 21, 2019, Delhi Development Authority (DDA) notification regarding the changes in land use for the project.
Suri said the alterations in the Centre's proposed plan was beyond the ambit of the permission they had already got. He added that power to bring about changes, if at all, lay with the Centre. Srivastava submitted that public hearings where to objections could be raised were mere formalities and were devoid of any meaningful consequence. Gupta, former Secretary of Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), had raised environmental concerns with respect to the project.
"The respect bestowed by the citizenry on these buildings and the institutions they house draws on the history of great events that have played out in these buildings, which nourish the democratic soul of our nation. These buildings are an integral part of India's constitutional heritage which is a continuing, living heritage," Kapadia argued. He also said the project "suffers from the vice of arbitrariness in its conception and implementation", and violate "constitutional and statutory obligations to preserve heritage."
Proposed new parliament an absolute necessity: Centre to SC
The Centre defended the proposed plan on the grounds that a new Parliament building and Central Secretariat was an absolute necessity.
Representing the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the current buildings—some dating back to 1927—were intended to house the legislative council and not the bicameral legislature we currently have. Mehta pointed out the 2001 Parliament Attacks to voice security concerns. He added the buildings did not conform to fire safety norms; was not earthquake-proof; water and sewage lines were haphazardly planned damaging the heritage nature of the building.
"Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are packed…Once there is an increase in the number of seats of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha after the fresh census to be conducted next year (2021), the building will be under stress," Mehta had added. "We have to run around the city to go to different ministries, increasing traffic and pollution. The policy decision is that all Central ministries have to be at one place and that place has to be one which has historical significance," Mehta had said.
The Centre argued that all necessary approvals were in place. The project could not be scrapped merely because the petitioners felt the process was not good enough.
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