In 2:1 verdict, SC gives green signal for Central Vista revamp project; says 'no infirmity' in approvals

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New Delhi, Jan 5 (PTI) The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the green signal to the Centre’s Rs 13,500 crore Central Vista revamp project here that includes a new Parliament building, holding there was “no infirmity” in the grant of environment clearance and permissions for change of land use.

Observing it cannot jump to put a 'full stop' on execution of policy matters and the courts cannot be called upon to “govern”, a three-judge bench in a 2:1 verdict at the same time said it is the “bounden obligation” of the government in a democratic set up to keep the citizens well informed about its actions as disclosure of full information is empowerment and acts as an “enabler for meaningful participation”.

Justice Sanjiv Khanna gave a dissenting judgement in which he touched upon issues like the 'failure' to take prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee(HCC). He also said public participation is not to be a mechanical exercise or formality.

The ambitious redevelopment project of the Central Vista -- the nation's power corridor -- envisages a new triangular Parliament building, a common central secretariat and revamping of the three-km-long Rajpath, from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. The Parliament building, with a seating capacity for 900 to 1,200 MPs, is to be constructed by August in 2022 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Independence.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice A M Khanwilkar in the majority verdict held that the grant of environmental clearance and the notification for change in land use for construction of the new Parliament building under the project was valid.

“We hold that there is no infirmity in the grant of: (a) ‘No Objection’ by the Central Vista Committee (CVC)….b)‘Approval’ by the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) as per the DUAC Act, 1973; and (c) ‘Prior approval’ by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) under clause 1.12 of the Building Byelaws for Delhi, 2016,” said Justice Khanwilkar, writing the majority 432-page judgement for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari.

The dissenting judgement by Justice Khanna ran into 179 pages.

“Since I have reservations with the opinion expressed by my esteemed brother A.M. Khanwilkar, J. on the aspects of public participation on interpretation of the statutory provisions, failure to take prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee(HCC) and the order passed by the Expert Appraisal Committee, I have penned down a separate dissenting judgment,” Justice Khanna said.

He, however, concurred with the majority verdict on the aspects of “notice inviting Bid, award of consultancy and the order of the Urban Arts Commission, as a standalone and independent order”.

The majority verdict was of the view that prior permission of the HCC can be obtained when the development work commences and it was not needed at the stage of planning and formalization of the project.

“Accordingly, the respondents (authorities) shall obtain...prior permission of the designated Authority before actually starting any development/redevelopment work on the stated plots/structures/precincts governed by the heritage laws...if already not obtained,” it said.

Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri welcomed the judgement and asserted that the government has always been sensitive to environmental concerns.

'Delhi is on course to becoming a World Class capital city and in the first step by the time nation completes 75 years of its Independence in 2022 a new Parliament building will be ready reflecting the aspirations of new India,' Puri tweeted.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone of the new Parliament building where the Lok Sabha chamber will have a seating capacity for 888 members, while the Rajya Sabha will have 384 seats for members.

'The CPWD will approach the committee(HCC) and seek permission before the start of construction work of new Parliament building. Other formalities will also be followed by concerned agencies,' said an official in the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry, According to the HCC website, a special secretary or additional secretary of the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry is the chairman of the HCC. The Central Public Works Department(CPWD) is executing the Central Vista redevelopment project.

The top court also said that judicial activism in “national interest” is certainly permissible to an extent, rejecting submissions that it should not have transferred to itself the pleas challenging the Central Vista project from various forums as it led to denial of statutory right to approach other courts or panels.

The majority judgement dealt with several aspects and objections raised in as many as 10 petitions including the one filed by Rajeev Suri.

The verdict left environment activists 'disappointed' and 'disheartened'.

Environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari said the project is harmful for the environment and is an encroachment of public place by the government.

'It is a very disheartening verdict. This project is very harmful for the environment. Delhi is the most polluted city on earth. Trees are already being cut.' The Congress said the project is not a legal issue but a case of misplaced priorities of 'an autocrat seeking to etch his name in the annals of history'.

The opposition party also described the project as 'a colossal waste of public money' in times of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recession.

The Congress has been opposing the Central Vista project.

In its majority verdict, the court said, “We are equally compelled to wonder if we can jump to put a full stop on execution of policy matters in the first instance without a demonstration of irreparable loss or urgent necessity, or if we can guide the government on moral or ethical matters without any legal basis. In light of the settled law, we should be loath to venture into these areas.

“We need to say this because in the recent past, the route of public/social interest litigation is being increasingly invoked to call upon the Court to examine pure concerns of policy and sorts of generalised grievances against the system. No doubt, the Courts are repositories of immense public trust and the fact that some public interest actions have generated commendable results is noteworthy, but it is equally important to realise that Courts operate within the boundaries defined by the Constitution. We cannot be called upon to govern.' The majority verdict held the exercise of power by the central government under DDA Act, was “just and proper” in effecting the modifications regarding change in land use of seven plots of the Central Vista project. It confirmed the government’s notification of March 20, 2020 on the land use.

“The recommendation of Environmental Clearance (EC) by Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) and grant thereof by MoEF is just, proper and in accordance with law including the 2006 Notification. We uphold the same along with appropriate directions therein to ensure that the highlighted mitigating measures are followed by the project proponent in their letter and spirit,” it held.

The majority verdict also said project proponent may set up smog tower(s) of adequate capacity, as being an integral part of new Parliament building project and additionally, use smog guns at the construction site throughout the construction phase is in progress on the site.

It also held as “just and proper”, the selection or appointment of consultants for the project.

In September last year, Tata Projects Limited had won the contract to build the new Parliament building.

The bench said that it was of the view that the grant of EC was in “conformity with the mandate of the competent authority and is just and proper.” “The project proponent has undertaken various expert studies to prepare a comprehensive traffic management plan, solid waste management plan, water management plan and waste disposal plan,” it said.

Once an expert committee has duly applied its mind to an application for EC, any challenge to its decision has to be based on concrete material which reveals total absence of mind, the bench said, adding that the facts of the case do not reveal any deliberate concealment of information.

It also said all relevant documents from the stage of expression of need for the project were placed in public domain.PTI SJK PKS MNL ABA BUN AG SKC SA GSN GSN GSN