The Supreme Court’s approval, on Tuesday, has cleared the decks for the Union government’s ambitious Central Vista project. The court has been sober and circumspect in limiting itself to the legality of the case: “Political issues including regarding development policies of the Government of the day must be debated in the Parliament, to which it is accountable. The role of the Court is limited to examining their constitutionality.” At the same time, the judgment delivers important messages. A 2-1 split verdict, it must be read in its entirety. For, the main verdict by Justices A M Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari as well as the dissenting note by Justice Sanjiv Khanna direct the project proponents to important imperatives: Respect for environmental and heritage norms and the salience of consultative processes. Indeed, as Justice Khanwilkar, writing for himself and Justice Maheshwari, points out: “The challenge (to the project) was premised on high principles of democracy and not limited to mere infringement of statutory provisions”. As government agencies, planners and architects give shape to a new Central Vista, Tuesday’s verdict underlines the sanctity of “participative processes” and “transparency in public institutions”.
The court talks about the government’s need for a revamped enclave to house the country’s highest legislative body and an integrated administrative block for ministries and departments. But it is also alive to the challenges such development poses to the environment — the two, it notes, “are not sworn enemies of each other”. It asks for the creation of smog towns and deployment of smog guns to mitigate the pollution from construction materials and directs that waste management at the site be subjected to constant monitoring. But beyond these measures, it spells out the guiding principle: “Development ought to be sustainable with the idea of preservation of the environment for present and future generations”.
Ecology is a recurring concern in Justice Khanna’s dissenting note as well, though he disagrees with his fellow judges on the credibility of environmental clearances obtained by the project. Quoting the Supreme Court’s 2019 verdict in Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v Union of India, Justice Khanna notes, “Public consultation is not a mere formality… Decisions which affect lives of people must factor in their concerns”. He returns to the theme while referring to heritage-related concerns — Delhi’s Heritage Conservation Committee was not consulted while framing plans for the revamped enclave, he says. “The primary grievance of the petitioners,” the dissenting note points out, is “the lack of information and details”. That the majority verdict too underlines the significance of transparency — “unless complete and relevant information… is placed in public domain, the public would be ill-equipped to engage with the Government in a meaningful manner” — should be a key takeaway for the government as it embarks on “this historic and iconic project”.
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