JUDICIARY / GOVERNANCE
Topic: General Studies 2,3:
- Separation of powers between various organs dispute redressal mechanisms and institutions
- Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Supreme Court on Central Vista Project
Context: The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave its nod to the Central Vista redevelopment project in a 2:1 verdict.
A Brief Background
- The project aims to renovate and redevelop 86 acres of land in Lutyens’s Delhi, in which the landmark structures of the Indian government, including Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, North Block and South Block, etc. stand.
- A batch of petitions had challenged the plan for demolition of old structures and new construction, including a brand new Parliament, on approximately 86 acres of land in the national capital.
What was under challenge, and what has the court held?
- Procedures Adopted: Broadly, the change in land use and the manner and procedure adopted for making the changes in the Central Vista precincts were challenged.
- Clearances given: The petitioners argued that there were irregularities in the process that involved approval of design, clearance on monetary allocations and the tendering processes, and other regulatory clearances on environment and from local municipal bodies.
- Heritage Approval: The petitioners had argued that the government failed to consult Heritage Conservation Committee, which is an expert body in matters involving heritage structures and ought to have been consulted from the stage of conception of the project, even before the design is agreed upon
- Hasty Decision: The petitioners highlighted that the whole process involving multiple local bodies was completed in just three months — between December 2019 and March 2020 — during which public consultation was held, objections were invited, considered and overruled.
How was the Master Plan modified?
- The central government and the Delhi Development Authority are given the power to modify the Master Plan of Delhi that was notified in 2007 to guide the direction of development of the National Capital Territory until 2021.
- This was modified in March 2020 to include the Central Vista project. Sections of land are assigned for specific purposes such as recreation, government, public and semi-public, which were modified to accommodate the Central Vista project.
How has the court ruled on this?
- In its 2:1 verdict, the court has held that there are no infirmities in the approvals granted.
- Justices A M Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari held that the central government’s change of land use for the project in the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 is also a lawful exercise of its powers.
- The court said the change is a “a case of minor modification” and “it is incomprehensible as to how the proposed changes could be termed as substantial enough to alter the basic identity of the plan
- The court’s view is based on the understanding that the changes will have to be looked at keeping in mind the whole plan and not just the zones in which the changes will be effected.
- For example, the proposed new Parliament is set to come up in Plot Number 2 of the Central Vista precincts which is currently a park. The land use for the plot was changed from recreation to government use.
- However, the court took the view that since the park has anyway been closed to the public for security reasons, the change in land use will not have any actual reduction of area available for public use.
- The ruling also noted that to compensate this change, the proposed change in land use provides for recreational space at three different locations in the neighbourhood.
- The court held that “taking legitimate steps/actions swiftly and as per the timelines because of the nature of the proposal cannot be termed as having been done in haste”.
What does the dissenting opinion say?
- Justice Sanjeev Khanna, the third judge on the Bench, penned a note of dissent. His disagreement from the majority verdict primarily relates to the issue of change in land use in the Master Plan of Delhi.
- Justice Khanna was of the view that the change in land use must be struck down on both procedural and substantial grounds.
- On procedure, the judge noted that it was initiated without a consultation process.
- He held that the central government did not give adequate thought to the concerns of the public and not enough time for those who raised objections to make their case. He said that the permissions given by the Central Vista Committee appear pre-determined.
- Justice Khanna also disagreed with the majority view that the modification was substantial and not a “minor change”.
- Court limited to Legality of case: The Supreme Court’s approval has cleared the decks for the Union government’s ambitious Central Vista project. The court has been sober and circumspect in limiting itself to the legality of the case.
- Sanctity of participative processes: Quoting the Supreme Court’s 2019 verdict in Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v Union of India, Dissenting Judge Justice Khanna notes, “Public consultation is not a mere formality… Decisions which affect lives of people must factor in their concerns”
- Transparency in public institutions: “The primary grievance of the petitioners,” the dissenting note points out, is “the lack of information and details”. Unless complete and relevant information is placed in public domain, the public would be ill-equipped to engage with the Government in a meaningful manner