EXPLORING THE RULE OF LAW – RULE BY LAW PARADIGM IN THE LIGHT OF THE CENTRAL VISTA JUDGEMENT

Authored By – Debarati Pal [1]

The Central Vista[2] is a seemingly alternative reinforcement of constitutionalism as proffered by the respondents to the Honourable Supreme Court. Interestingly, the sole reason was the compromise of structural integrity which seemed incompetent to manifest representative democracy at the highest level, thereby upsetting the status quo of the ‘Rule of Law’- ‘Rule by Law’ paradigm. For us, the ever-curious and intrigued students of this fascinating discipline, I must assert that the case is rich; in a sense, it highlights myriad themes and sub-themes from constitutionalism to participatory democracy to judicial review; investigates the doctrine of fairness, administrative discretion as opposed to the doctrine of public trust, and questions the substantive as well as procedural credibility of various clearances. The Honourable Court while delineating Rule of Law espoused other incidental notions of Public Accountability, Equality and Fairness with ethical and independent representations on all tiers.

A more detailed look is necessary at this juncture. When I mentioned the structural integrity being compromised, I meant to refer to the Central Hall of the Parliament House Building, which according to the policy document is incapacitated to accommodate 440 members during a joint session. Additionally, it is predicted that with the next delimitation exercise to be conducted in the year 2026, the figure might rise exponentially in conformity with the present demographic standards, thereby posing a threat to the dignity of the representatives of the world’s most populous democracy. Other structural and functional defects and irregularities (the redundant audio –video system, the air conditioning system, supply and sewer lines, only to name a few) were cited to make a more promising and an urgent enterprise. However, the issue at hand is not whether the democrats deserve a refurbished or a brand new Parliament building, the question is where the democrats see themselves executing the enterprise. In the present context, the democrats have chosen seven plots in the Central Vista Region as the site for the proposed Parliament building, which houses numerous heritage buildings. Several Writ petitions were filed alleging that the democratic values were endangered by violating “Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and the doctrine of Public Trust by denying access to public/ recreational spaces which are essential to life and liberty.”[3] Correspondingly, the approval by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the clearances approved by the PMO, Heritage Conservation Committee and the Central Vista Committee along with the environmental clearance was challenged.

It would be legitimate to note here that the Land Development Officer, Ministry of Housing Affairs, owner of the plots of land, commenced the procedure relating to the change in land use of the Central Vista Region, was accepted by the Technical Committee Meeting of the Delhi Development Authority with minor modifications and thereafter a public notice was placed in the domain inviting necessary objections and suggestions. The petitioners asserted that a change in land use would require an updated Zonal Development Plan, but in the present case, it was violated as the changes in land use were predicated on the old Zonal Development Plan of 2001. To supplement, the proposed changes /modifications contradicted the Master Plan.  Therefore, the approval by the Technical Committee and the PMO stands questionable as regards to procedural fairness. The public notice was circulated amongst the six leading newspapers but only 42 persons appeared for the hearing of objections because the notice was published just the previous day and falls short under the definition of “reasonable time”, thus vitiating the rules of public consultation under natural justice, where the precedents support the prerequisite of comprehensive consultation based on demography, availability of open spaces only to name a few. The impugned public notice was also trite; it did not furnish detailed information regarding the proposed changes which disallowed the objectors to prepare and present their case. The respondents did deny the allegations, stating that they had sent relevant information via email to the relevant objectors 3 days before. Yet again the question lingers, whether 3 days can be constituted as reasonable time, given the objectors may be situated in any part of this vast country and may require a minimum time to travel (prepare the documents for presentation) to Delhi to present their stance.

In addition to this, the Central Vista Committee was reconstituted; the Chairman being the ADG, Works Department of CPWD and the Project proponent was the Chief Architect of CPWD thereafter raising several enquiries relating to the fairness quotient. The Committee though originally was envisioned as an Advisory Body, conducted meetings perfunctorily without taking other officers into consideration, even the proposal was submitted and approved without giving due consideration of the members representing the independent non- governmental organisations, thus vitiating another prerequisite of quorum.  The Delhi Development Authority refuted the claim saying that the other stakeholders were busy during the pandemic and did not travel/ take part in the deliberations voluntarily. In order to approve the no-objection certificate, the Central Government ought to have inspected the relevant documents including maps, drawings, layouts, in order to take an informed decision on the matter. Instead they approved without calling any external experts for consultation stabilizing a conjecture that the procedure might have been “a deliberate step to avoid professional scrutiny…the no objection as arbitrary and illegal.” [4]

Another issue has arisen pertaining to the nature of the Central Vista Committee and whether it is a statutory body or an advisory body. Despite the refutations made by the respondents claiming the Central Vista Committee to be an advisory body, the petitioners have argued the pivotal character played by the Committee in inviting bids as well as assuming a pivotal role in the development of the aforementioned project, thus giving it a colour of a statutory body. The question is: whether the Committee is created under a statute? No, the body is not as stated by the respondent, and therefore the body cannot be coerced to “supply reasons for its approval in a manner akin to judicial/quasi- judicial bodies.” [5]

Apart from that, an application for Environmental clearance was filed for “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Parliament Buildings” and after receiving several objections, the Expert Appraisal Committee suggested modification after perusing the objections. After revision the cost of the project soared up from Rs.776 crore to Rs. 922 crores and the total built up area were enhanced “from 59,800 sq.m. to 65,000 sq.m.”[6] Thereafter the Ministry of Environment and Forests accepted the recommendations of the Expert Appraisal Committee and approved it subsequently. To augment the perspective, the respondents willfully integrated the project with three distinct components, namely,

  1. Development /Redevelopment of Parliament Building
  2. Common Central Secretariat
  3. Central Vista

The legal directive declares an imperative collective appraisal of the interlinked and integrated projects as a prerequisite for environmental clearance to assess the cumulative impact on the environment. It was alleged that the respondents concealed relevant information and have categorically stated that “the new Parliament Building shall have minor impacts on the environment”. The project proponent in this case, the Chief Architect of the CPWD has “given false assurances regarding impact on air pollution, noise pollution, geology, ecology and biodiversity”. As far as the heritage impact assessment is concerned, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission recorded various observations relating to urban form, integrated aesthetics, and green buildings and thereafter considered a revised building plan proposal and approved with minor modifications in “parking requirements, public art, skylights and height of the building.  The aforementioned approvals were not carried out in accordance with the ‘procedure established by law’. It was carried out without an objective and independent assessment and without a stakeholder consultation at all stages, thus vitiating the rules of natural justice. The rebuttals made by the respondents lack in clarity and rationale. But for us, as I said, the judgement teaches us the nuances of legal realism built on the essence and fabric of judicial scrutiny, that after all, law is indeed not about logic but carved out of a myriad of fortunate and unfortunate experiences of the past.

 

REFERENCES: 

[1] About The Author – Debarati Pal, Assistant Professor, School of Law, UPES, Dehradun; Doctoral Candidate, NALSAR, Hyderabad. She has been associated with the School of Law, UPES for more than 4 years; previously she was associated with Rajiv Gandhi School of IP Law, IIT Kharagpur for 2 years as a Project Fellow. Her academic interests lie in uncovering the various legal aspects relating to the cultural conservation of heritage properties.

[2] Rajeev Suri vs. Delhi Development Authority and Ors. ; Civil No. 229 of 2020

[3] Id

[4] Id

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