Supreme Court greenlights Central Vista project
The TLDR: In a 2:1 ruling, the Court refused to step in to block the government’s ambitious plan to remake the nation’s seat of power—an iconic stretch of land that extends from the Rashtrapati Bhavan at one end to India Gate on the other. The Court was the last best hope for critics who have railed against the project since its inception.
The basic deets
The Central Vista refers to a 3.2-km stretch in Delhi along Rajpath—which features some of India’s most iconic landmarks such as India Gate, Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan. The project is estimated to cost Rs 200 billion and is due to be completed by 2024. The most prominent changes include:
Two: A new Prime Minister’s residence, close to the South Block (government block to the south of the Rashtrapati Bhavan). The existing Vice President’s residence will be demolished, and he will get new digs next to the North Block. The President will mercifully stay put at his current accommodation.
Three: Ten identical stone-clad, doughnut buildings (built around large inner courtyards) will house all the 51 central government ministries with 51,000 employees. They will all be connected via an underground shuttle and to the Metro. The old government buildings—like Rail Bhawan etc—will be razed to make way for the new.
Four: There are various other proposals to fell and replant trees, raze existing buildings and alter the green spaces etc. But these details remain hazy because the government has not yet released project plans or blueprints. All we have right now are a bunch of images of models created by HCP Design—which were chosen to execute the project.
The bird’s-eye view as per those models will look something like this:
Point to note: The government’s rationale for the Central Vista project is as follows:
“A new Master Plan is to be drawn up for the entire Central Vista area that represents the values and aspirations of a New India—Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity and is rooted in the Indian Culture and social milieu.”
The government also argues that the present buildings—built in 1931 under the supervision of Edward Lutyens—“have either outlived or approaching their structural lives.” The reason:
“There is [a] shortage of working spaces, parking, amenities and services. The spread of Central Government Ministries and Departments in different locations leads to inefficiencies and difficulty in coordination.”
The Supreme Court petitions
The court considered ten separate petitions challenging various aspects of the project. These raised roughly the following concerns:
One: In 2019, the government changed the land use designation of an area of 90 acres—which includes vast green spaces which are a popular destination for residents and tourists—from “recreational open spaces” to “government offices”. The end result: In that central Rajpath strip, 80.52 acres will be at the government’s disposal and only 9.54 acres will be reserved for the public.
One policy expert says: “The redevelopment represents a form of ‘government sprawl’ where powerful offices appropriate urban space with little concern for planning or socio-ecological consequences.”
Two: Dramatic changes in the name of modernisation will destroy a valuable piece of our heritage. UNESCO raised concerns about the plan saying it “may potentially alter the built footprint of the area including considerable changes to the skyline, which may impact the overall heritage character of the place.” It pointed out, for example, that the new Parliament building will be taller than India Gate.
Point to note: In 2014, the Delhi government petitioned UNESCO to grant World Heritage Site status to Delhi—but it was withdrawn by the Modi government which claimed it would hamper infrastructure plans in the city.
Three: Critics allege that the project was hastily given environmental clearance—riding roughshod over 1,300 objections that were submitted to the Environment ministry. It cleared the project in the midst of last year’s lockdown—along with 191 large-scale mining, infrastructure and industrial projects. They claimed in an open letter that if the project is implemented, the green cover in the Central Vista will decrease from the existing 86% to 9%. Also: the construction will wipe out most of the 90 acres that are classified as public, semi-public district parks and neighbourhood play areas.
Four: In general, there has been very little public consultation or participation in the project—or in the decision-making process. And much of the proposed redevelopment remains hidden. In his dissent, Supreme Court Justice Sanjiv Khanna noted “no plans, layouts, drawings etc., or written matter explanatory or of descriptive nature to illustrate or explain the proposed changes and project were put in the public domain”.
The project website—which apparently will have “elaborate explanations with drawings and renderings”—will only be rolled out over the next month.
Point to note: The project oversight was entrusted to the Central Vista Committee—created back in 1962. The committee approved the plan at an April 23 meeting where none of its four independent members—architects and urban planning experts—were present. Justice Khanna offered this stinging assessment of the decision:
“The contention that the meeting was a premeditated effort to ensure approval without the presence and participation of representatives of professional bodies is apparent and hardly needs any argument.”
The Supreme Court ruling
To sum up, the other two justices—A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari—basically said that it isn’t their job to tell the government how to do its job. These are the key passages in the 611-page ruling:
“The government is entitled to commit errors or achieve successes in policy matters as long as constitutional principles are not violated in the process. It is not the court’s concern to enquire into the priorities of an elected government…
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...
In light of the settled law, we should be loath to venture into these areas. We need to say this because in the 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.”
Yup, that’s about all there is to know.
The bottomline: Do we need one? We suggest instead taking one last look at the Central Vista as it is today:
Reporting on the objections to the Central Vista project is scattered across multiple stories. The most useful and comprehensive is the detailed critique put together by NewsLaundry. The Telegraph has the best summary of the majority ruling, while Indian Express has the most details on Justice Khanna’s dissent. Indian Express also has a report on what to expect next. You can check out the other work done by the architectural firm HCP Design on their website. Also see: This PR video that visually captures the essence of the proposed redevelopment.