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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Supreme Court central vista judgment: What the petitioners argued

In a split decision, the Supreme Court has cleared the Central Vista project. A look at the grounds on which the project was challenged, how the majority verdict ruled on these, and what the dissenting judge said.

Written by Apurva Vishwanath , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: January 6, 2021 8:16:21 am
Explained | Central vista judgment: What the petitioners arguedThe Supreme Court on Tuesday gave its nod to the central vista redevelopment project in a 2:1 verdict. (File photo)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave its nod to the Central Vista redevelopment project in a 2:1 verdict. 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?

Broadly, the change in land use and the manner and procedure adopted for making the changes in the Central Vista precincts were challenged. 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.

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.

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. The petitioners argued that change in land use was not really a “modification” and also raised concerns on the manner in which the permissions were granted.

How has the court ruled on this?

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 or for that matter, of the zone concerned. The effect is negligible in contrast to the expanse of the zone”.

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 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. 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”.

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A sketch of the design of the new proposed Central Vista. (Courtesy HCP Design, Planning & Management)

What were the processes challenged?

NO OBJECTION BY CVC: The petitioners had challenged the composition of the Central Vista Committee and therefore all the approvals granted by the body. They argued that the CVC was set up to rush the approvals and that the officials who were proponents of the central vista project were also entrusted with the CVC and there was an apparent conflict of interest.

APPROVAL BY DUAC: The petitioners had argued that the consultation with Delhi Urban Commission (DUAC) had to be completed at the plan conception stage itself. They argued that in the absence of a comprehensive consultation, the approvals were granted without proper application of mind. However, the government has stated that considering different stages for different components of the project, DUAC approval regarding the Parliament project has been obtained whereas the approval for rest of the Central Vista precincts shall be taken as and when the development activity thereat is proposed in future.

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.

ENVIRONMENTAL CLEARANCE: The petitioners had argued that the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) had no mandate to grant clearances because the Central Vista project was multi-sectoral and that the body had no expertise to deal with such a project since the sectoral impact was not presented to the EAC. However, the court held that the case on hand does not involve multi-sectoral components to it as it is a “simpliciter construction project.” It also said that the petitioners had failed to substantiate their apprehensions by placing material on record to the contrary.

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. “Mere uploading of the gazette notification giving the present and the proposed land use with plot numbers was not sufficient compliance, but rather an exercise violating the express as well as implied stipulations, that is, necessity and requirement to make adequate and intelligible disclosure.”

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 CVC appear pre-determined.

Justice Khanna also disagreed with the majority view that the modification was substantial and not a “minor change”.

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