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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Central Vista: SC defines limits to its role in a case it took over

“Before we part, we feel constrained to note that in the present case, the petitioners enthusiastically called upon us to venture into territories that are way beyond the contemplated powers of a constitutional court,” said the majority opinion.

Written by Apurva Vishwanath | New Delhi | January 6, 2021 3:38:46 am
The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave its nod to the central vista redevelopment project in a 2:1 verdict. (Archive)

CLEARING the path for the central government’s Central Vista redevelopment plan, the Supreme Court on Tuesday also underlined the contours of judicial intervention and limitations of the court to review certain government action.

“Before we part, we feel constrained to note that in the present case, the petitioners enthusiastically called upon us to venture into territories that are way beyond the contemplated powers of a constitutional court,” said the majority opinion.

In a separate section titled “Postlude”, the majority verdict discussed the role of a constitutional court and “wondered” about the circumstances in which a court “not only surpasses the boundaries reserved for its oversight in the Constitution but also provides it an express recognition by acknowledging a heightened review”.

“We are equally compelled to wonder if we can jump to put a full stop on execution of policy matters in the first instance without a demonstration of irreparable loss or urgent necessity, or if we can guide the government on moral or ethical matters without any legal basis. In light of the settled law, we should be loath to venture into these areas,” the ruling said.

The court said that it needed to state this because “in recent past, the route of public/social interest litigation is being increasingly invoked to call upon the Court to examine pure concerns of policy and sorts of generalised grievances against the system”.

This undertone of judicial introspection was also evident in the dissent note penned by Justice Sanjiv Khanna even as he disagreed with the majority view on the substantial questions in the case.

“We have referred to the contentions of the petitioners and respondents in some detail but would not comment on merits. These are complex and esoteric issues which have to be at first stage considered and decided by the specialised authorities,” Justice Khanna wrote in his opinion.

Despite its obvious reluctance to look into certain aspects of the Central Vista project, however, it was the Supreme Court itself that had transferred the case to itself and decided to bar any other court from hearing pleas connected with the project.

In December 2019, after the Delhi Development Authority held public hearings to bring in changes to land use in the Master Plan, a batch of petitions were filed challenging the move in the Delhi High Court. On February 2, 2020, a single judge of the High Court directed the Centre to inform the court before taking any step on issuing a public notice.
The Centre challenged this order before a division bench and was granted an ex-parte stay against the order of the single judge. Subsequently, the petitioners moved the Supreme Court on the limited aspect of the grant of an ex-parte stay when the case was already pending.

“In our opinion, it is just and proper that writ petition itself is heard by this Court instead of examining the grievance about the manner in which the interim directions have been passed and then vacated by the High Court. Indeed, this order is not a reflection on the proceedings before the High Court, in any manner, but in larger public interest, we deem it appropriate that the entire matter pertaining to challenge pending before the High Court is heard and decided by this court expeditiously,” the Supreme Court said in its March 6 order.

Incidentally, neither the government nor the petitioners had moved an application seeking a transfer of the cases to the Supreme Court.

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