Central Vista: Citizen’s Collective Urges Environment Ministry Not to Accept CPWD’s Latest Proposal

The Expert Appraisal Committee has granted conditional approval to the new terms of reference for the development or redevelopment of various buildings under the Central Vista project.

New Delhi: The conditional approval granted by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to the new terms of reference for the development or redevelopment of various buildings under the Central Vista project has been criticised by a citizen’s collective on the grounds that this evaluation is piecemeal and hasn’t looked at the alternatives. Also, the group of architects, urban planners, historians and politicians has charged that such an assessment only diverts additional public money when the Supreme Court’s final decision on the project is still pending.

EAC had specified 18 conditions

The EAC had specified 18 conditions for the development or redevelopment of several buildings that are supposed to come up in the heritage zone as part of the Central Vista project. These buildings include the Central Secretariat buildings, Prime Minister’s Residence and a central conference centre. The approval of the terms of reference means that an initial clearance has been granted to the project.

In its assessment, the EAC has asked the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) – which is developing the project – to state the environmental, social and economic benefits of the project and how these developments in their entirety would impact the environmental quality of the area.

As per the minutes of the EAC meeting, held on December 17, it also asked the CPWD to provide data on land, groundwater, surface water, air, biodiversity, noise and vibration, socio-economic and health impacts of the project. Further, it asked for detailed plans on issues such as demolition of existing structures, groundwater recharge and traffic management.

Despite reduced construction size, cost goes up

The CPWD, which made a presentation on how the project would bring all ministries together in the common central secretariat, has also been told to submit a recommendation from the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC).

Also read: Advisory Body to UNESCO Concerned Central Vista Project Will Alter Area’s Built Footprint

The project now envisages construct of a total built-up area of 17,21,500 sq m, down from 18,37,057 sq m planned earlier. However, the project cost has gone up by Rs 1,656 crore – from Rs 11,794 crore to Rs 13,450 crore.

Incidentally, the minutes of the meeting also recorded that 10 petitions are pending in the Supreme Court against various features of the Central Vista project.

`EAC should withdraw recommendation, not issue terms of reference’

The letter by LokPATH to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said, “The Government of India’s Central Vista project continues to be ‘work in progress’ at the cost of tax payer’s money and despite ten comprehensive petitions pending before the Supreme Court of India.”

The letter noted that “the committee recommended a Terms of Reference (ToR) to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) to the third version of the Central Public Works Department’s (CPWD) proposal to construct Common Central Secretariat Buildings and a Central Conference Centre along with Prime Minister’s Residence, SPG Building and Vice President’s Enclave.”

LokPATH demanded that the recommendation of the EAC be withdrawn and the ToR not be issued to the current version of the components of the Central Vista project. The group also surged that the third proposal in question submitted by the CPWD be returned, saying, “it is based on incomplete and faulty disclosure of information in the application for ToR.”

Objecting to the moves, the citizen’s collective pointed out four major points of concern.

No alternatives have been considered

The group said the application form for environment clearance requires project proponents to disclose ‘Details of Alternative Sites examined, if any’. However, it added that location of these sites should be shown on a toposheet. But, the CPWD’s answer to this question was “No” indicating that either alternatives were not studied or not disclosed to the EAC at the time the ToR was recommended.

Without an assessment of alternatives to the project and to its location, how has the CPWD concluded that this is the best use of public resources and the least environmentally damaging project, the group asked. It also added that “without an assessment of alternatives, the project’s claims of public benefits are merely an expectation and not a fact. The EAC cannot appraise a project that is not based on facts.”

`Project is still piecemeal and not integrated’

LokPATH has also stated that the “integrated” proposal recommended for a cumulative impact assessment by the EAC does not include buildings like the Shram Shakti Bhawan and Transport Bhawan which by the admission of the project consultants “will be the first two buildings to be razed to pave the way for the construction of chambers of Members of Parliament there as part of Central Vista redevelopment project”.

It said this admission came within 10 days of the EAC’s recommendation for a ToR and it invalidated the expert committee’s conclusion that the CPWD’s third piecemeal proposal is “integrated”.

“This third proposal that was submitted to the EAC (also) did not include the new Parliament and the New India Garden on the Yamuna floodplains, which are an integral part of the Central Vista Redevelopment,” the collective pointed out.

Also read: Plans to Replant Central Vista Another Worrying Sign of the Project’s Direction

Public money being wasted on assessments

The LokPATH has also objected to spending of more public money on assessments only for the purpose of justifying a pre-determined project. It said the expert committee’s recommendation for a ToR would require the CPWD to carry out several detailed studies, including a cumulative impact assessment, on issues such as demolition plans, groundwater recharge, contour plans and traffic. “All these studies,” it expressed the apprehension, “would necessarily be engineered to make the project appear more environmentally acceptable because the decision to build the project is predetermined.”

Stating that these studies would be contracted to consultants and sub consultants at public cost using tax payer’s money, the group reminded how in view of the COVID pandemic, and its economic and social impacts, citizens have already raised serious questions about the government diverting public funds for this project when it should be prioritising expenditure on public health and social welfare.

Why the spend when SC decision is pending?

The group also reminded the minister that Supreme Court’s decision on 10 petitions is still pending in court. “These petitions,” it said, “have raised fundamental legal questions on the viability of the project, procedural irregularities in awarding contracts, procedural violations and negative impacts related to land use change, heritage and environment impact assessment.”

“However,” it charged that “the government, including the CPWD is continuing with activities involving public expenditures, awarding new studies and changing the scale, design and layout of the project even as the decision of the court is pending.”