Central Vista: Justice Undone
Tikender Singh Panwar
THE protest at Capitol building in Washington on January 6 was unequivocally condemned worldwide. Apart from the general feeling which many of us had to this protest/ attack, I was also intrigued to know- “How old is the building?” The same building which was targeted by the Trump supporters. This Capitol building was made operational in 1800 after seven years of construction work and continues to stand tall and serve its purpose. So, it is almost 220 years old.
Our government at New Delhi filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India in as many as 10 writ petitions filed by different groups of people challenging the construction project of the central vista. The affidavit strongly supported the proposal that the construction of new parliament building along with the changes proposed in the central vista is of utmost importance. Before we go into the details of the affidavit and the decision delivered by the Supreme Court of India on January 5; it is prudent to exhibit that one of the contentions of the government for the construction of the new parliament building is the age of the building; according to the government it is too old and it is not fit to run the parliament from such an old building.
The present parliament building was constructed during the British period and was made operational in 1927. So, this building is less than 100 years; 93 years old.
Let us have a look at some of the iconic parliament buildings of the world. The French parliament building was constructed in 1722, the Italian parliament building in 1871. Both the French and Italian parliaments function from these buildings. The German parliament building was constructed in 1894. These buildings, including the Indian parliament building, represent not just the architectural manifestation of the period but also are linked to the traditions and customs of the region. The entire idea that the Indian parliament building is too old, is erroneously bogus.
Meanwhile, the SC delivered a judgement on 10 petitions on January 5, 2021. The verdict of the SC is a fractured one with two judges, A M Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheswari disallowing the petitions to cancel the project, but Sanjiv Khanna registering a dissenting voice. So, with a 2:1 ratio, the verdict was delivered in favour of the government to go ahead with the central vista project.
Though the CV project has been thoroughly reported in these columns, but it would be prudent for our readers to give a short note on how this project came into being.
The central vista precinct as it is called extends from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate. It includes the North Block South Block, the Parliament building, and the central government secretariat buildings along the Rajpath all the way up to the India Gate circle and all the plots of land immediately around it. According to the proposal, a redevelopment of the central vista is to take place, which shall include the construction of the new parliament building at the intersection of the triangle of the Red Cross Road and the Raisina Road. Demolition of a few existing secretariat buildings like Shastri Bhavan, Rail Bhavan etc., as well as the National Museum, the ministry of external affairs building, vice-president residence and all other buildings along Rajpath with the now sole exception of National Archives. Also construction of new buildings at the site and at the IGNCA(Indra Gandhi National Centre for Arts).
The old buildings like the North Block and South Block shall be used as spaces for museums. A new PMO and his mansion residence adjoining the South Block will be constructed. The PM’s house shall be connected through an underground tunnel to the new PM office and to the new parliament. It is said this space will be nuclear attack resistant. Nearly, 2,500,000 square metres of construction will take place.
OBJECTIVES OF THE PROJECT
According to the affidavit filled by the government of India in the Supreme Court the following objectives of the project were highlighted:
(i) Space constraint- Even after 73 years of independence, the nation does not have a common secretariat building; various ministries, due to lack of available space, have hired premises on rent.
(ii) Most of the existing buildings have outlived its structural life and are not earthquake resistant.
(iii) As there is no common central secretariat and ministries are spread over different locations, the resultant effect is administrative inefficiency and difficulty in inter-departmental coordination. This also leads to travelling, resulting in traffic congestion and pollution
(iv) Integrated functioning of all offices of the central government.
(v) To connect all the ministerial offices through an underground shuttle transportation system for the smooth performance of routine administrative functions.
(vi) The existing Parliament House was constructed during 1921-1927. It is too old.
(vii) By 2026, the number of seats in Lok Sabha would increase from 545. Both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are packed and would have no capacity for addition of seats when the number of seats would increase. To prepare the Houses of Parliament for emerging spatial requirements in light of the impending delimitation exercise.
(viii) To preserve the built heritage by not undertaking aggressive reconstruction activity on graded heritage structures on which only minimum renovation measures are permissible in law.
HOW DID THE MATTER REACH THE SUPREME COURT?
Not going into the merits of the above reasons filed by the government of India which have been thoroughly countered in earlier columns, it is appropriate to mention that the main contention of the petition in the Supreme Court was to highlight the irregularities in the process of allowing the central vista project. The processes that had elements; environmental impact assessment, central vista committee approval, Delhi Urban Arts Commission approval, heritage approval by the Heritage Conservation Committee and most importantly the land use change.
The land-use change for the construction of the new parliament building was proposed by the Delhi Development Authority. After objections to the proposed change in land use were received by the DDA and public hearings were conducted there against, the petitioners (a group of people-architects, environmentalists and concerned citizens) approached the High Court of Delhi for challenging the public notice dated December 21, 2019.
The High Court vide order dated February 11, 2020, directed the DDA to inform the court before taking any step-in furtherance of the impugned public notice. However, the single judge who delivered this injunction was immediately transferred and a double bench of the High Court granted an ex-parte stay over the order thus allowing the DDA to go ahead with the land use change designs. This was then challenged in the Supreme Court. Along with this petition, there were nine other petitions filed with different aspects of the central vista. The SC finally delivered the order on January 5, 2021, allowing the construction of the CV.
MAIN CONTENTIONS OF THE PLEA IN THE SC
Land Use Change
The foremost reason was that the land use of plot number 2, measuring 9.5 acres of land opposite the parliament building, where the new parliament building is proposed is a designated district park. This area falls under the heritage zone and hence without the prior approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee, the DDA could not have allowed changing the land use.
The second objection was that the Central Vista Committee was composed arbitrarily reducing the number of non-governmental architects and planners and filled with pro-government officials in order to rush up the construction of the CV. And there was an apparent conflict of interest.
The third contention was the Delhi Urban Art Commission is a statutory body and hence consultation with it should have been taken at the planning stage itself. There was absence of comprehensive consultation and approval was granted in a selective manner. Instead of the entire CV project, not just the parliament building should have been processed.
The fourth contention pertained to heritage approval. The government failed to consult the Heritage Conservation Committee, which is a body comprising experts in heritage structures. This committee was never consulted. The consultations should have been at the inception of the project stage and the design should have been got approved from this committee.
The fifth objection was from the environmental clearance aspect. Instead of providing a comprehensive impact on the environment because of the entire central vista project the government got approval in a sectoral manner which definitely would be less in comparison to the cumulative impact of the entire project. The Expert Appraisal Committee that granted the clearance had no mandate to do so as the project is multi-sectoral and the body had no expertise to deal with such a project since the sectoral impact was not presented in the EAC.
If all the contentions are kept on record it smells that a big conspiracy was underneath to selectively choose and push the project violating procedures and processes that were developed both statutorily and through precedence.
THE SUPREME COURT ORDER
As reported the SC(in a ratio of 2 :1) set aside these objections and found out that the government did not violate in the processes. But is it true? The impugned order itself speaks about some of the processes that were not completed. The majority view was also of the opinion that the changes in the central vista project are minor and not substantial.
INTERESTING DISSENTING JUDGEMENT
While setting aside the notification of the DDA, the dissenting judge, Sanjeev Khanna delivered this important verdict.
1. The central government/authority would put on public domain on the web, intelligible and adequate information along with drawings, layout plans, with explanatory memorandum etc., within a period of seven days.
2. Public advertisement on the website of the Authority and the central government along with appropriate publication in the print media would be made within seven days.
3. Anyone desirous of filing suggestions/objections may do so within four weeks from the date of publication. Objections/suggestions can be sent by email or to the postal address which would be indicated/mentioned in the public notice.
4. The public notice would also notify the date, time and place when public hearing, which would be given by the Heritage Conservation Committee to the persons desirous of appearing before the said committee.
5. Objections/suggestions received by the Authority along with the records of BoEH and other records would be sent to the Heritage Conservation Committee. These objections etc., would also be taken into consideration while deciding the question of approval/permission.
6. Heritage Conservation Committee would decide all contentions in accordance with the Unified Building Bye-Laws and the Master Plan of Delhi.
7. Heritage Conservation Committee would be at liberty to also undertaken the public participation exercise if it feels appropriate and necessary in terms of paragraph 1.3 or other paragraphs of the Unified Building Bye Laws for consultation, hearing etc. It would also examine the dispute regarding the boundaries of the Central Vista Precincts at Rajpath.
The reasons or the arguments stated by the government to push ahead with the CV are erroneously flawed.
Existing Parliament House and Central Vista are continuing and living heritage which must be preserved and protected for future generations. Re-development of nearly 80 acres of land, demolition of National Museum and construction of new Parliament will permanently affect the iconic character, skyline, layout, and the architectural harmony of the central vista. It would cause irreplaceable and non-revocable harm and damage Garde 1 heritage buildings and precincts.
Re-development, if required, should have been undertaken as per well-established norms applicable to places of historical interest. The exercise being undertaken fails to follow the best practices of heritage conservation.
No expert or specialised study and assessments has been undertaken and in absence, allegations of structural integrity, fire safety and seismic concerns etc. are mere reservations and misgivings. There is no empirical data in support of the assertions made by the government that the Parliament House etc., has outlived its life. Whereas there are living examples of how in the world buildings older than the Indian parliament continue to serve the purpose. No such doubt is raised in respect of other building constructed at the same time like the North and South Blocks and the President’s House.
Heritage assessment study should be undertaken and made public. Existing Parliament building can be upgraded. In alternative, expansion or additional construction rather than the construction of a new Parliament can be explored. Office spaces, can be created near the official residence of the bureaucracy. Cost-benefit analysis has not been undertaken though significant capital expenditure in excess of Rs 20,000 crores apparently would be incurred. The capital cost would be higher as logistics, temporary housing cost and the cost of removal or transplantation of mature trees etc., have not been included.
Assertion that expenditure of Rs 1,000 crores per annum on account of rent etc., is unsupported by any document from the government and is just assumptive. Over a period of time, there has been a reduction of green area in the central vista, which is open and accessible to the general public. The public area would get further reduced with the redevelopment plan.
Zone ‘C’ where New India Gardens are proposed, is at a different location and not within Zone ‘D’, in which the central vista is located. Reduction in green/ recreational area in CV, a prime and iconic place, cannot be compensated by a garden at a different location.
By the Constitution (84th Amendment Act), 2002 has extended the freeze on undertaking fresh delimitation as a part of national population strategy. Delimitation for the same reason may or may not take place. In any case, it would be after the next census post-2026, that is in 2031.
So, what is the inherent intent to push for a new parliament building so steadfast?
“A fascist leader wants to leave an imprint of his glory; the footprint does not just limit to the polity, rather extends to a wide spectrum that includes art and architecture. If the construction of Volksshalle was the idea of Hitler, designed and planned by Albert Speer, the proposal of construction of a new parliament building along with the redevelopment of the central vista in Delhi by Modi and his prime architect, Bimal Patel is another parallel, to a similar idea. Something big and to an ethos to the culture of fascism is the model that is desired to be built.”
Unfortunately, in dire times when the spending should be for people, a despot would inversely build castles! And this is what we are witnessing.