The hasty and sudden clearance granted to the ‘much-hyped’ Central Vista Project, despite a lot of objections from environmentalists, historians and concerned citizens has been sharply criticised by the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). Based on the EAC’s recommendations dated April 22, MoEF & CC granted Conditional Environmental Clearance for the construction of a new additional Parliament building, which is a part of the ambitious Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista Project. That the serious objections raised in the 1300 submissions to EAC have not been adequately considered is a sad reflection of the state of environmental governance at the highest levels!
The Central Vista Project envisages a ‘revamp’ of the entire 3-km long Rajpath, including South and North blocks of Central Secretariat and also the Parliament House of India. This revamp also entails that the North and South Block would be converted into museums and many critical offices like Krishi Bhavan, Nirman, Bhavan, Vignan Bhavan may have to be demolished. The proposal is to construct a new 900-seater Parliament building by July 2022 and a common Central Secretariat by March 2024.
Dubbing the entire project as wasteful expenditure, the NAPM in its statement stated that it “will be projected as yet another patriotic prop before the 2024 elections!” The Gujarat-based architecture firm HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited has been given tender for the Project. In fact, in a recent letter addressed to the Prime Minister and the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister, around 60 retired bureaucrats have expressed serious concerns regarding the selection of the consultant architect and have said, “a hastily drafted and inappropriate tender was rushed through in record time to select an architectural firm in what was an extremely flawed process”. Akin to ‘PM Cares’, which is shrouded in secrecy, the Central Vista Project is yet another mammoth project which conceals more than it reveals !
There are multiple legal challenges to the Project that are still pending adjudication in the Delhi High Court and the Apex Court on the grounds that the Project would lead to illegal change in land use and that it contravenes the Delhi Master Plan-2021 of ‘decentralizing the government offices in the national capital’. The legal tenability is also questioned on the plank that when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) already invited objections to the proposal vide Notice dated December 19, 2019 and the same was challenged in the SC, a fresh notice dated March 20, 2020 could not have been issued by DDA, and that the same would tantamount to ‘interference in the administration of justice’. It is contended that if the project is implemented, the green cover in thee Central Vista of Lutyens’ Delhi would decrease from the existing 86% to 9% and of the 105 acres of the Central Vista, at least 90 acres is classified as public, semi-public district parks and neighbourhood play areas.
The statement also states that the Central Vista Project also violates provisions of the 2003 UNESCO Declaration concerning the ‘Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage’, to which India as a member state, is a signatory. In fact, what is not widely known is that an earlier proposal by the UPA Govt. in January 2014 to UNESCO to grant World Heritage Site status to “Delhi’s Imperial Capital Cities” was ‘withdrawn’ by the Modi Govt, without specifying any reason. It is not hard to understand why, since this regime did not want any questioning of the mindless tinkering of heritage sites of historical value by the world body.
Finally, the NAPM express its grave concern at the numerous recent moves of the Govt of India to dilute pro-people, pro-environment legislation and push forth massive projects that are detrimental to national interest. Instead of investing in robust public health infrastructure, amidst the worst pandemic, the nation-wide ‘lockdown’ is being used as an opportunity to ‘clear’ many controversial projects. It is alarming that the environment, forest and wildlife clearance process for as many as 191 large-scale mining, infrastructure and industrial projects is underway through ‘video-meetings’ of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) where many projects are considered in a time-span of just about ’10 minutes’!
The NAPM statement also states that the EAC and MoEF have a long history of rushing through decisions on such mammoth projects, even when objections are not objectively considered and litigation is pending, to create a situation of “fait accompli’’! Although many such ‘mega-infrastructure’ projects are hugely damaging the environment, enviro-legal safeguard mechanisms and authorities have been failing to defend the law of the land. It is indeed unfortunate that in a recent hearing, even the Supreme Court did not consider the matter “urgent enough” to be heard during lockdown, despite many serious objections and the fact that the Project would potentially and irreversibly change the whole landscape of the area.
The NAPM demands that the MoEF must immediately withdraw the questionable clearance granted to the Central Vista Project. If indeed ‘PMCARES’, the Govt of India must shelve this Project permanently and the huge corpus of Rs. 20,000 crores must instead be diverted to the Ministry of Health to strengthen public health infrastructure.