Underlining the cost and infrastructure advantages of the proposed Central Vista redevelopment project, the Centre told the Supreme Court Tuesday that the question whether or not to have a new Parliament building is a policy decision which the government is entitled to take.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said this while responding to a query from a bench of Justices A M Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna.
Justice Khanna pointed out that one of the issues raised by the petitioners is if it’s possible to refurbish and use the existing Parliament building. To this, Mehta said it is a policy decision which the Centre is empowered to make. “Unless it is utterly arbitrary and atrocious, it is something which the government can decide,” he said, pointing to problems with the existing Parliament building.
The policy decision, he said, is to have all central ministries at one place, and that place has to be one which is historically significant.
Stating that he is not treating it as an adversarial litigation, Mehta said the government had taken an important policy decision to construct a Parliament complex and central secretariat as the existing one is under tremendous stress. The project cannot come up at Noida or elsewhere, but on Central Vista, he said.
Another policy decision, Mehta said, is to execute the project without touching the existing heritage properties. “Not a brick of existing buildings will be touched,” he said, adding “it will be used as a museum showcasing history”.
On the contention that there was no “design competition” for the project, he said these are usually held for projects like war memorials etc which are monuments and do not serve functional purpose. For the Central Vista project, there was a “concept competition… as the buildings proposed are functional and not ornamental,” he said.
Contending that there is “imminent” need for a new Parliament building, he said the current one was built in 1927 to house the legislative council and was not intended to house a bicameral legislature that the country has today. The current building will be under more stress when the number of seats to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are raised, he said. Both Houses are already packed and members have to sit on plastic chairs when joint sessions are held, diminishing the dignity of the House, he said.
The existing building, he pointed out, does not conform to fire safety norms. Water and sewer lines are also haphazard and this is damaging its heritage nature, he said. He sought to highlight security concerns in the wake of the 2001 Parliament attack. It is also not quake-proof, he said.
On the cost advantages of having a new central secretariat building, Mehta said many central ministries are housed in different buildings with the result that the government ends up paying rent for many of them. The new building, he said, will help avoid this.
The fact that people and officials have to run around the city to go to different ministries also increases traffic and pollution, he said, adding that the project proposes interlinking of metro stations which will minimise use of vehicles.
Referring to land remaining unutilised in the Central Vista area, he said it is a criminal waste of space. Seeking to allay fears on environmental norms, he said “if the petitioners’ concern is environmental protection, I will say it is fully taken care of.”
He said a detailed traffic management plan was also placed before the Expert Appraisal Committee before clearance was granted. The project, he said, will be in different phases with different deadlines. The construction of the new Parliament building has a 2022 deadline.
He said the new Parliament is a stand-alone project.
The bench referred to the contention that the application for environmental clearance for the central secretariat had not mentioned linked projects and sought to know if it was the approach of the government that the new Parliament building was priority, and should be separated from rest of the project and given preference. To this, Mehta replied in the affirmative.
On the contention of the petitioners that no effective study was conducted before deciding on a new building, Mehta said “for deciding that a new Parliament is needed, we don’t need a separate study. If I feel that the house I am living in is not enough, I don’t need to invite an expert to determine that”.
Explaining this, he said ownership of the Parliament building is with the Lok Sabha Secretariat and considering the fact that numerous occupants and Lok Sabha Speakers have indicated issues and inadequacies with the present structure, there was no need for a separate independent study. “The metaphor of my house needing upgradation was only to indicate the obvious nature of the need and the non-requirement of separate material,” he said.
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