Central Vista: ‘Proof’ That SC Backs Govt On Environmental Issues?
“The rule of law has completely failed... the Central Vista is a manifestation of that,” the main petitioner said.
The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, 5 January 2021, paved the way for the Central Vista project that will change the way the capital and its iconic buildings around India Gate look. Petitioners had approached the Supreme Court challenging the DDA’s powers to authorise change in land use and had questioned the environmental impact(s) as well, since the project will lead to the chopping of trees and add to the city’s air pollution index.
The government, however, defended the project, claiming that construction of a new Parliament building and Central Secretariat were ‘absolutely necessary’.
Why Smog Towers Are A ‘Sham’
The majority opinion by Justice AM Khanwilkar, who headed the three-judge Bench, and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, said the change in land use under the Delhi Development Act in the restricted zone was ‘just and proper’. The court did not find any infirmity in the grant of approval by the Central Vista Committee or the Heritage Conservation Committee. The judges said, as per a report by The Hindu, that there was no need for approval at the incipient stage of a project but it should be sought when the project materialised on the ground.
On a more controversial note — the court order states that “the project proponent may set up smog tower(s) of adequate capacity, as being an integral part of the new Parliament building project; and additionally, use smog guns at the construction site throughout the construction phase is in progress on the site”.
This in spite of the fact that environmental experts have repeatedly pointed out that smog towers don’t really help in controlling pollution. For a city reeling under constant pollution such a massive construction exercise will only add to the city’s burgeoning pollution levels.
Karthik Ganesan Researcher with CEEW argue, “in the post-construction phase, the efficacy of these technologies is highly questionable and there is no clear evaluation of their impact.”
Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust argues that smog towers are a “sham”. The best smog towers are the ones that nature has given us — trees!
Why Heritage Conservation Committee Is Unlikely To Oppose The Govt’s Decisions
Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research, who has been following the issue closely, is more optimistic about the judgment and believes that the Heritage Conservation Committee could play a key role. She says: “The majority judgment has held that no construction — even on the new Parliament — can take place till the Heritage Conservation committee grants permission. According to the Unified Building Bye-laws (2016), a public consultation is required before the permission is granted. The dissenting judgment is also important as it has clearly held that there is infirmity in the grant of change of land use and environment clearance of which should be set aside.”
However, even a cursory glance at the members of the Heritage Conservation Committee shows it is not likely to oppose the government’s decisions, since it is mainly comprised of government officers.
For environmentalist Rajeev Suri, who was the main petitioner in this case, the order couldn’t have come at a worse time. Having just recovered from a near-death experience with COVID, Suri has only just returned from the hospital to receive the news. A disappointed Suri laments:
“It took me 14 months of my life to fight this case, and with one sweeping order overnight it’s all been undone. The consequences are many — rock solid buildings will be gone — like the National Stadium, the Rail Bhavan, the Ministry of External Affairs, Vigyan Bhavan... We didn’t have any objections against the new Parliament. What we were against is the change in land use. Can you just take over public parks? Can you take over public spaces without any consultation? I feel devastated. The rule of law has completely failed... the Central Vista is a manifestation of that.”
Environmental Matters: Has Judiciary Become An ‘Adjunct’ To The Executive?
There is a larger point here — on whether the judiciary has now become an adjunct to the executive when it comes to the environment.
The judiciary has, in recent years, whether it is the Green Tribunal or the Supreme Court, broadly upheld the orders of the government when it comes to environmental issues.
The order of the SC on 5 January 2021, giving the green light to the Central Vista project, is a case in point.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist in search of a greener world. She is also the author of two books. She tweets @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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