The majority judgment, authored by Justice A M Khanwilkar for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, turned down a concerted challenge to the change of land use under the city’s Master Plan, grant of statutory and other permissions as well as environmental and heritage clearances, selection of project consultant and non-holding of a design competition for the final shape of the project. “It is not legally binding upon the project proponent to conduct a design competition for a project of this nature,” the SC said.
It also rejected repeated requests of the petitioners to expand and enhance the scope of scrutiny of development projects at the behest of a few who disagreed with the proposed project of the government, which it said represented collective wisdom. The SC noted that the 93-year-old Parliament building, a grade-I heritage building, would be retrofitted and put to ceremonial use.
The majority judgment said, “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. We are compelled to wonder if we, in the absence of a legal mandate, can dictate the government to desist from spending money on one project and instead use it for something else, or if we can ask the government to run their offices only from areas decided by this court, or if we can question the wisdom of the government in focusing on a particular direction of development.
“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.”
In his 179-page dissenting judgment, Justice Sanjiv Khanna did not fault the government’s decision to build a new Parliament building, which would be required to accommodate an increased number of seats in the two Houses after the delimitation exercise scheduled for 2026. However, he struck down the statutory and environmental clearances as well as the notification for change of land use.
In the 432-page majority judgment, Justice Khanwilkar accepted all the points argued by solicitor general Tushar Mehta and found the supporting documents given by him repudiating the allegations of a large number of petitioners, who were led by senior advocate Shyam Divan.
Justices Khanwilkar and Maheshwari said, “We hold that there is no infirmity in the grant of: (a) ‘no objection’ by the Central Vista Committee (CVC); (b) ‘approval’ by the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) as per the DUAC Act, 1973; and (c) ‘prior approval’ by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) under clause 1.12 of the Building Byelaws for Delhi, 2016.
“We further hold that the exercise of power by the central government under Section 11A(2) of the DDA Act, 1957, is just and proper and thus the modifications regarding change in land use of plot Nos. 2 to 8 in the Master Plan of Delhi, 2021/Zonal Development Plan for Zone-D and Zone-C vide impugned notification dated March 20, 2020, stands confirmed.
“Recommendation of environmental clearance (EC) by Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) and grant thereof by ministry of environment, forests and climate change is just, proper and in accordance with law including the 2006 notification. We uphold the same along with appropriate directions therein to ensure that the highlighted mitigating measures are followed by the project proponent in their letter and spirit.”
The only additional direction given to the project proponent by the apex court was to set up smog towers of adequate capacity in the new Parliament building and use “smog guns at the construction site throughout the construction phase on the site”. It asked the MoEF to consider issuing an omnibus direction for installation of smog towers in all future major development projects, both government and private, while granting environmental clearance, given the city’s track record on air quality.
Justice Khanwilkar clarified that the stage of prior permission, under the Building Byelaws of the Heritage Conservation Committee, was the stage when actual work for development/re-development commenced and not the incipient stage of planning and formalisation of the project.
“Accordingly, the authorities/project proponent concerned shall obtain aforementioned prior permission of the designated authority before actually starting any development/redevelopment work on the stated plots/structures/precincts governed by the heritage laws including on plot No. 118 (new Parliament building), if already not obtained,” the bench said.
The petitioners had initially challenged the Central Vista project before a single-judge bench of the Delhi high court, which on February 11 last year had directed the DDA to approach the HC if it intended to permit change in land use for the project. On the Centre’s appeal, a division bench of the HC on February 28 stayed the single judge’s order. The petitioners had moved the SC, which on March 6 withdrew the entire matter from the HC to itself and conducted an elaborate hearing for days together.