New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday approved the Central Vista project, paving the way for the government to start construction work on one of its ambitious projects that is estimated to be worth over Rs 20,000 crore.
A three-judge bench by 2:1 majority held there were no infirmities in clearances granted for the project.
Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, writing for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheswari, however, said authorities executing the project will have to get clearance from the Heritage Conservation Committee, rejecting the Centre’s stand that the approval was to be taken subsequently.
The court also said the exercise undertaken by the central government in change of land use of the project’s master plan 2021 is legal and valid.
The bench confirmed all the notifications issued in this regard and declared the recommendation by the Environmental Committee as “just and legal”. It called upon the Ministry of Environment to set up smog towers as an integral part of the Central Vista project and ordered use of environment-friendly construction material.
On the award of contract to a Gujarat-based firm, the court held it was just and proper.
Justice Sanjiv Khanna penned the minority opinion, but agreed with the other judges on the award of the project. He disagreed on the change in land use in the master plan and suggested remitting the matter back for public hearing. On the aspect of environmental clearance, the judge said the agency concerned had given a non-speaking order. The judge also held that prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee was necessary for such projects.
The bench had on 5 November 2020 reserved its verdict on the validity of the project that envisages redevelopment of 86 acres of land in Lutyens’ Delhi.
The court had then refused to accept petitioners’ request to stay the project until it delivered its verdict.
On 7 December, however, the court took an undertaking from the Centre that no construction work would begin at the site earmarked for the new Parliament complex, part of the Central Vista project.
In an urgent hearing conducted a day after Lok Sabha speaker announced 9 December as the date for the ground-breaking ceremony for the new building, the bench said the fact that there is no stay does not mean that construction can go on.
The judges, visibly miffed over the announcement, said only the foundation stone can be laid or paper work for the project can be processed. At this, solicitor general Tushar Mehta assured the bench that no trees would be cut or physical changes to the structure would be done.
According to the proposal, the redevelopment of the Central Vista area will involve construction of a new Parliament house, a new residential complex for the Prime Minister and vice-president and 10 administrative buildings for all government ministries. It also includes converting the existing North and South blocks into museums. The project also proposes development of the Central Vista that connects Rajpath to the India Gate.
The petitioners before the Supreme Court challenged a notification issued by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on 21 December 2019, regarding changes in land use for the redevelopment.
While issuing notices on the petition, the apex court had refused to stay the project but made it clear that its validity will be subject to the outcome of the petitions before it.
Broadly, the petitioners argued that DDA was not vested with the power to bring change to land-use, assailing the alterations envisaged by the Centre. There was also a challenge to the manner in which public hearings were held before notifications were issued to change the land use. It was argued that the hearings were a mere formality, devoid of any meaningful consequences.
Environmental concerns due to redevelopment were also highlighted by the petitioners before the top court.
‘Central Vista Project not a wastage of money’
The new Central Vista project is not a wastage of money but will save public funds worth Rs 1,000 crore that the administration has been spending annually on rent expenditure, the Centre had said, defending the project.
It also argued that a new vista was an absolute necessity as there was acute stress on the old central secretariat and Parliament building that were in a dilapidated condition.
The current parliament building, which was opened in 1927, does not adhere to fire safety norms, has a serious space crunch, is not earthquake-proof and is not equipped with modern security infrastructure to avoid a repeat of incidents such as the 2001 Parliament attack, the court was told.
Regarding construction of the new Central Secretariat, the government underscored the need to bring all important ministry offices under one single building.
All necessary statutory approvals including environmental clearances were in place and the project cannot be scrapped merely because the petitioners felt a better process or method could have been adopted, the government said, opposing the petitioners’ argument that the Centre violated settled norms and guidelines for such projects.