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All Is Not Well With The Central Vista Project

A MISPLACED PRIORITY OF A WHIMSICAL GOVERNMENT

23rd January, 2021

Written by Niyati Karia

Artwork by Aryan Srivastava

The project will rob the country of its heritage and valuable public space. One of the petitioners argued that the encroachment of public space is in contravention with Article 21 of the Constitution i.e. Right to Life as it denies basic access to public/recreational spaces which are essential to life and liberty.

The ambitious Central Vista Project has turned into a very controversial topic. But many are still oblivious to the mega project which will change the future course of the national capital by 2022, commemorating the 75th year of Independence. It is believed that the newly furnished buildings will be used for the G-20 Summit India will be hoisting in 2022. 

 

So, what is the Central Vista Project?

 

The Redevelopment project is aimed at constructing the “power corridor” of India, revamping the three-km-long Rajpath, from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate, constructing a brand new common central secretariat, stately administrative buildings, National Archives and the majestic Parliament. Lutyen’s Delhi will witness an impressive make-over with opulent modern structures and newly adopted spatial identity housing government ministries overlooking emerald lawns and magnificent broad avenues. 

 

The Parliament Building was constructed by the British and stands tall at 97 today. The structure has been subject to various modifications in the post-independence period to keep up with the needs and requirements in order to maintain its functionality. However, these spaces have outlived their structural life and are still ill-equipped to meet even the basic fire and earthquake safety norms. They are facing acute shortage of office spaces and outdated infrastructure. 

As per the policy documents, the need for redesigning the public space is rooted in the creation of a larger working space to accommodate governmental offices and integrated administrative blocks for the efficient functioning of the highest legislative wing of the country. The iconic buildings will be renovated to meet the present and emerging needs of vibrant Indian democracy. It will be developed as a “world-class public space” and “venue for national and international events”. 

 

If the intentions of the government are bona fide and seem legitimate, then why has this project received severe backlash and strong objections? 

 

It is no secret that India is still in the middle of a pandemic and the economy of the country has hit the rock bottom, reeling under the effects of the pandemic. The plight of millions of migrant workers who were rendered homeless overnight due to the sudden lockdown have neither been recognized, nor dealt with. Thousands of farmers are agitating against draconian laws. The healthcare system is on the verge of collapsing and the unemployment level has reached an extreme high. Yet, huge sums of money are being spent on remaking of the boulevard in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi instead of reviving the economy or combating the pandemic. Approximately 20,000 crores will be spent to make new structures and spaces. 

 

A group of former civil servants have written an open letter to the Prime Minister who expressed their anguish and stated that the project, “from its very inception, has been marked by a degree of executive highhandedness.” They succinctly mentioned their grievances related to the increase in cost deployed and questioned whether it is at all necessary to erect a new Parliament building and give New Delhi a facelift at such a crucial hour. They abhor the government’s decision to proceed with the extravagant and wasteful project. 

The Court has time and again emphasised that the project is in the interest of the public, thereby rejecting the argument that the Central Vista eventually would encroach on the public space.

The major two challenges which the project faced are: 1) Hasty approvals of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC), the Central Vista Committee (CVC) and Environment Clearances. The union government notified change in the use of land without putting the studies, reports and surveys of the redevelopment plans and layouts in the public domain and 2) Activists, environmentalists and urban planners have raised several objections as the project was approved without public consultation and is not transparent.

 

The duty of applying heritage scrutiny is with DUAC, HCC  and the CVC. Now, DUAC, which has the final say, has approved the project and CVC has no objection, however, at the cost of repeating again, no prior approvals from HCC are sought – on the basis of which DUAC gives its approval. Anuj Srivastava, a retired army officer and Delhi-based architect, and Madhav Raman, an architect and member of LokPATH, who have also filed petitions against the project, believe that the project is being carried out in the unplanned fashion. The government has failed to look into other alternatives and the objectives furnished by the government do not fully establish the need to redesign the iconic buildings. 

 

The project also raises several environment concerns. The air pollution level of Delhi is increasing at an alarming rate and reaches hazardous levels every winter. The project will strip the city of its vast green cover and aggravate the problem. The Centre plans to transplant the trees to the outskirts of the city and a number of trees will be planted. however, according to Bhavreen Kandhari, a Delhi-based environmental activist, these trees cannot be transplanted because the soil is weak and the water is polluted. One of her biggest concerns is that the construction and demolition work will lead to huge amounts of dust and debris which will further reduce the air quality. 

Moreover, the public is aggrieved by this project because a large amount of tax-payers’ money is going into it but they are kept in the dark since the mechanism is not transparent.  This lack of transparency affects both the quality of law making as well as its social communication, acceptance and effectiveness and this results in a highly centralized system of power. 

 

However, the megalomaniac government is too consumed by bigotry to consult the public at large. The three underlying purposes for public participation are that 1) It will result in better decisions by ensuring that the decision maker receives all information and is properly tested, 2) it avoids a sense of injustice and 3) it is reflective of democratic principle at the heart of our society. 

 

In addition to this, many activists fear that the mammoth project will encroach upon the public space. Under the doctrine of public trust, the same spaces cannot be taken over by the government to build government offices and Parliament houses. The project will rob the country of its heritage and valuable public space. One of the petitioners argued that the encroachment of public space is in contravention with Article 21 of the Constitution i.e. Right to Life as it denies basic access to public/recreational spaces which are essential to life and liberty. The buildings being symbols of India’s democracy should be preserved instead of being demolished. The Government has been re-iterating that Central Vista will remain a public space, but it is common knowledge that it will never be the same. 

The Apex Court of India vide decision dated 5th January, 2021 in the case of Rajeev Suri v. Delhi Development Authority & Ors, held that there is no infirmity in the grant from the three committees mentioned above and has given green signal to the Central Vista Project. The judgement is split in 2:1 ratio. Justice Khanna gave a dissenting opinion. He correctly pointed out that the scrutiny by HCC should come prior to the design of the project. His observation was based on the Clause 1.3 of the Unified Building Bye Laws, 2016 which stated the same. The CVC’s lack of fair and independent application of mind has come in for specific criticisms by him. Sadly, the majority decision will have a binding effect.

 

On the issue of environment clearance, the majority judges refused to interfere and issued directives that the project proponent should observe in letter and spirit throughout the construction phase. The Court asked the proponents to set-up smog tower(s) of adequate capacity and use smog guns. The government also ensured that total tree cover shall increase with new plantations, 100% C&D waste shall be recycled and utilized within the project and Rain Water Harvesting structures and water conservation measures shall be undertaken. Only time will tell what good these directions result in. 

 

The Court has time and again emphasised that the project is in the interest of the public, thereby rejecting the argument that the Central Vista eventually would encroach on the public space. The judges were unconvinced by the argument that the project lacked public participation. Their rationale was: 

 

“The same logic may be invoked to compel the Government of the day to undertake public participation before going for a war on the fronts due to aggression by the neighbouring country, which is more important than a decision to construct a new Parliament building.” 

The Court equated an issue of national importance with the development project, suggesting that the Central Vista project is of highly political importance which is in national interest. It further observed that the government should not be bogged down by mere technicalities i.e. approvals from the subservient committees, when the matter is of public interest. The reasonings given by the Court suggests that they had made up their mind about the outcome of the case, even before they heard both the sides. The concerns raised by the petitioners are far from being settled- even though the verdict has come, and the split in the verdict is the testament to this fact. 

 

The government needs to put its cynicism aside and understand that these are special places because of our living heritage. Right from the new government taking oath to public protests, Central Vista has always played an imperative role in it. The precinct is home to rich historical artefacts and cultural articles. It is not just a building complex, but a reflection of day-to-day living of our democratic foundations with high ecological value. As rightly observed by Justice Khanna, the Central Vista Project is not a routine policy decision which can be reversed. It will have serious implications which will break down the heart of Delhi forever.