- Apprentice Lawyer
In the first significant ruling of 2021, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court today gave the green signal to the redevelopment of New Delhi's Central Vista area, rejecting a batch of petitions challenging the scheme for alleged violation of land use and environmental norms.
The Court by a 2:1 majority held that the exercise of the power under the Delhi Development Authority Act was just and valid and that the grant of environmental clearances by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change was also valid and proper.
"Selection and appointment of environmental consultant in the case is held to be just and proper. Modifications regarding change in land use stand confirmed," Justice AM Khanwilkar read out the majority judgment on behalf of himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari.
Importantly, Justice Sanjiv Khanna dissented from the majority opinion on the point of change of land use associated with the project. He held that while the award of the project cannot be faulted with, prior approval of the heritage committee was required when it came to change in land use.
"I have agreed with brother judge, Justice Khanwilkar on notice inviting bid and award of project.
However, on the question of grant of change of land use, I have a different opinion. I have held that the same was bad in law. There was no prior approval of Heritage Conservation Committee and thus matter is remitted back for public hearing. On the environmental clearance aspect, it was a non speaking order," Justice Khanna read out his dissenting opinion.
The Central government is proposing the redevelopment of the Central Vista area by constructing a new Parliament house, a new residential complex that will house the Prime Minister and the Vice-President, as well as several new office buildings and a Central Secretariat to accommodate Ministry offices.
The petitioners before the Supreme Court challenged a notification issued by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on December 21, 2019 regarding changes in land use for the redevelopment.
One of the petitioners, Rajeev Suri, assailed the alterations envisaged by the Centre arguing that they involve changes to land use and standards of population density and that the DDA is not vested with the requisite power to bring about such changes. He submitted that the power for bringing about such changes, if at all, lies with the Central government.
Another petitioner, Lt Col (retd) Anuj Srivastava, challenged the public hearings held to raise objections to the exercise, arguing that they were a mere formality devoid of any meaningful consequence.
Meena Gupta, a former Secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, filed an intervention application in the pending case highlighting environmental concerns due to the redevelopment.
The Central government had defended the project claiming that the construction of a new Parliament building and a Central Secretariat has become an absolute necessity due to the stress on the present ones.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that the current Parliament building, which was opened in 1927, does not adhere to fire safety norms, has a serious space crunch, and is not earthquake-proof.
"There is an imminent need to have a new Parliament building. The current building was built in 1927 prior to independence and was intended to house the legislative council and not a bicameral legislature we have today. The building does not conform to fire safety norms and water and sewer lines are also haphazard which is damaging the heritage nature of the building. Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are packed. When joint sessions are held, members sit on plastic chairs diminishing the dignity of the House," SG Mehta had told the Court.
Once there is an increase in the number of seats in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha after the fresh census to be conducted next year, the building will be under stress, Mehta added. He also cited security concerns, highlighting the 2001 Parliament attack.
Regarding construction of a new Central Secretariat, the Centre underscored the need to bring all important Ministry offices under one single building.
“We have to run around the city to go to different ministries, increasing traffic and pollution. The policy decision is that all Central ministries have to be at one place and that place has to be one which has historical significance", Mehta contended.
It was also the government's argument that all necessary statutory approvals including environmental clearances were in place and that the project cannot be scrapped merely because the petitioners felt a better process or method could have been adopted.
Unless there was any violation of Constitutional or legal provisions, the Court should refrain from scrapping the project and there was no occasion to warrant judicial interference in the present case, Mehta submitted.
The Court had heard arguments in the last week of October and the first week of November last year before reserving its judgment on November 5, 2020.