Delhi: Central Vista redevelopment project

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Before the construction began: 2020, 2021

The project

Prabhash K Dutta, January 8, 2021: The Times of India

What is Central Vista project that Supreme Court has halted?

The Central Vista project is a plan for redevelopment of India's power corridor? The Supreme Court has ordered to halt all construction activities on the project.

The Central Vista is a grand redevelopment project for building what will be the power corridor of India, having a new Parliament building, a common central secretariat and revamped three-km-long Rajpath, from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate. The Supreme Court has ordered the government to halt all construction activities on the Central Vista project.

The Supreme Court warned the government not to carry out any work on the Central Vista project until it decides on a bunch of 10 petitions challenging the mega redevelopment plan. The Supreme Court was particularly unhappy over a press release by the government that said the construction was to begin, and that translocation of trees was underway despite the court having reserved order on November 5 on the matter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to perform the groundbreaking ceremony for the Central Vista project on December 10. The Supreme Court has allowed “bhoomi pujan” provided, the three-judge bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar said, “if you [the government] do paperwork, or lay foundation-stone but no construction should be done”.

So, what is the Centra Vista project?

The Central Vista redevelopment project is a construction plan to give India’s power corridor a new spatial identity in what is usually called the Lutyen’s Delhi. The existing buildings for Parliament, various offices of the central government, the residence of the prime minister and also the vice-president’s house, in the view of the government, have been found to be inadequate. New buildings will be constructed along the Rashtrapati Bhavan-India Gate stretch of the Rajpath in New Delhi.

Under the Central Vista project, the residence of the prime minister is likely to be shifted near the South Block that houses the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The vice-president's new house will be closer to the North Block. The “North” and “South” Blocks are named so for their location north and south of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

According to the Central Vista redevelopment plan, North and South Blocks will be converted into museums. However, the current residence of the vice president is among the buildings identified for demolition.

Highlights of the Central Vista project

The new Parliament Building Complex, triangular in shape spread over 64,500 square metre, is described as the pivot of the Central Vista project design. It is to be much bigger than the existing Parliament building and will be able to house 1,224 Members of Parliament.

The Lok Sabha chamber will have a seating capacity of 888 MPs while the Rajya Sabha chamber will accommodate 384 MPs. The increased capacity of the chambers has been provisioned for keeping in mind future increase in the number of MPs. Currently, the Lok Sabha has 545 MPs and the Rajya Sabha 245. All MPs will have separate offices in the new building.

The new Parliament building will have a grand Constitution Hall showcasing India's democratic heritage. The Constitution Hall will showcase the original copy of the Constitution and a visitors’ gallery digitally displaying India's democratic heritage.

The existing Parliament House building will continue to be in use by retro-fitting it to provide more functional spaces for parliamentary events.

The new Parliament building will be equipped with the latest digital interfaces as a step towards creating 'paperless offices'.

A monitoring committee drawing members from the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the CPWD, the NDMC and architect/designer of the project will monitor the construction work.

The new Parliament building complex is expected to be complete by 2022. The Central Vista project has a work completion deadline of 2024, when the next Lok Sabha election will take place.

When was the existing Parliament building constructed?

The existing Parliament building was constructed by the British colonial rulers. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. They had, in fact, designed the entire planned construction area of New Delhi. This is why the New Delhi area is often called the Lutyens’ zone.

The existing Parliament building complex took six years in construction - from foundation stone laying on February 12 in 1921 to the inauguration by then Viceroy Lord Irwin on January 18 in 1927. The construction cost back then was Rs 83 lakh - a princely sum in those days. The current Central Vista project is estimated to cost Rs 971 crore.

SC approval

Krishnadas Rajagopal, January 5, 2021: The Hindu

Plan to erect new Parliament building gets SC green light

In majority opinion, top court says change in land use under DDA Act is proper

The Supreme Court, in a majority judgment, 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, home to India's power corridor in the national capital.

In their majority opinion, Justices A.M. 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, Central Secretariat block.

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”. 

Justice Khanna also disagreed with the majority view and set aside the environmental clearance given by the Ministry to the Parliament building project. 

“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 i.e. 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. 

An appraisal

Arghya Sengupta, January 7, 2021: The Times of India

The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution called on Nandalal Bose to adorn its pages with illustrations that would capture the essence of the new republic. Bose’s choices were a mélange – mythical figures – Krishna, Arjuna, Rama, Sita; sovereigns – Ashoka, Akbar, Tipu Sultan, Shiva ji; freedom fighters – Rani Laxmibai, Gandhiji, Netaji all found place alongside motifs from Ajanta, Mahabalipuram and Harappa and India’s natural endowments, its oceans and mountains. Yet Bose omitted representing the lives of ordinary Indians from his mélange – no hardworking farmers, brave soldiers or unnamed revolutionaries made it.

His vision was at once awe-inspiring – marvelling at the hallowed past of this supposedly new nation, and top-down – looking at India from the lens of its nobility. This is not to fault Bose’s choices. In fact, the new republic that came into existence in 1950 was in many ways a continuation of the old. Colonial ways of thinking about India as a space ruled by a succession of kings cannot overnight transform into a celebration of subaltern voices.

Similarly, symbols of colonial power do not, at the stroke of the midnight hour, become monuments of liberation. India’s appropriation of the buildings of empire in the Central Vista as its seat of power – the Viceroy’s House, Parliament House, North and South Blocks may have been pragmatic at the time. But architecturally, much like Bose’s illustrations, they inspire awe and pride, rather than freedom and equality, which animated the struggle for Independence.

Today, seven decades on, if a democratically elected government wants to transform this edifice, that act is not an erasure of history. Instead, it is the recognition of a sentiment that has taken seven decades to mature – India is no longer to be defined by colonial symbols that we have made our own. Those symbols will stand as testament to a chequered past, a lived history to be neither demolished nor appropriated, but to simply remain.

But what is the animating vision of the transformed edifice that will reflect this changed sentiment? Bimal Patel, chief architect of the Central Vista revamp project, is a skilled professional. In each of his presentations, he has underlined that the revamp will supplement the existing ethos of the vista and not supplant it. It will be a site that will be a “triumph of common sense”, through a “functional, simple, robust and quiet design”.

These are certainly attributes that any building ought to possess. But the Central Vista is more than a set of buildings and spaces. It is the representation of India itself, translating the idea from its becoming to its being. So while Patel may want India to be commonsensical, functional and simple, others may want it to be aggressive, strategic and punch above its weight. Some others, while agreeing with Patel, may also want India to be non-hierarchical, fair and just. Translating these characteristics into design requires time, consultation and an open mind.

In this context, the Supreme Court judgment giving the legal go-ahead to the Central Vista revamp is a missed opportunity. Pressing the ‘pause’ button on the project, as Justice Khanna has done in his dissenting opinion, would have provided an opportunity for everyone to reflect more deeply on an enterprise that will define India for some time to come. It is also what the law, on balance, demanded.

The case in the Supreme Court was fundamentally a plea for ‘democratic due process’ – greater openness in formulation, selection and development of the final design. Pitched at this level, democratic due process is a principle of political prudence, not of judicial review. The judges were right to defer to the executive on this question instead of creating another doctrine devoid of clear meaning.

But deference cannot mean a free pass. It is clear from the case record that the prior approval and permission of the Heritage Conservation Committee, needed under the law for land use to be changed, was not taken. Holding that strict approval is not needed since some members of the committee also sat on another committee which had approved the project, is a strange proposition of law laid down by the majority judges.

Equally strange is their upholding of the environmental clearance given only to the renovation and expansion of the Parliament building. As the dissent rightly notes, slicing up of the entire project into parts and allowing piecemeal environmental clearance requires cogent reasons to be provided. Not providing such reasons, especially in a matter that will increase pollution levels in the most polluted capital city in the world, is unacceptable.

His order, asking the government to apply for environment clearance and change of land use again before proceeding, much like Patel’s proposed design, is the triumph of common sense that the project needed. Even though it isn’t the law, one hopes that the wisdom of the dissent is internalised.

One will not have to travel far from Parliament to reach other grand structures built speedily to change the seat of power. Less than 20 km away lies Tughlaqabad Fort, built by Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq, moving his capital away from Lal Kot and Siri. Despite its grandeur, it remained the capital for only a few years and lies in ruins today. Currently it is best known for being a shooting range. Only with time, do things fall into place.

The writer is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal

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