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Central Vista Project Must Be Halted, Risks Lives During Pandemic: Petition in HC

Though the ASG agreed to an earlier hearing, the high court has posted the matter for May 17.

New Delhi: The Delhi high court on Tuesday posted to May 17 a petition which sought a halt to the Central Vista redevelopment project. The petition argued that the project did not constitute an “essential service”; to the contrary, it posed “a threat to the lives of the citizens of Delhi and beyond, including the lives of the work force/labour engaged in the project”. The plea also cautioned that the project construction could prove to be a COVID-19 “superspreader”.

The public interest petition, filed by Anya Malhotra and Sohail Hashmi, had urged orders or direction to the respondents – the Union of India and others – to “halt/suspend forthwith all construction activity at the Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project during the subsistence of the peak phase of the pandemic”.

Appearing for the petitioners, senior advocate Siddharth Luthra submitted that he was fully cognisant of the Supreme Court’s judgment passed on January 5, 2021 whereby it upheld and permitted the Central Vista Redevelopment Project. By this petition, he submitted, the petitioners were in no manner seeking to overreach the said judgement.

The petition was premised on two grounds. Luthra submitted that petitioners are concerned with the ongoing construction activity in part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project designated as ‘Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project’ and seeks to challenge the Union of India and Central Public Works Department’s relentless, unmindful and reckless act of carrying on this project in a manner that poses a threat to the lives of the citizens of Delhi and beyond.

The petition added that there was also a threat to the lives of the work force/labour engaged in the project, as carrying on with the work has the potential of being a superspreader event. It also stated that such continuation or work was also in “clear breach and violation of the orders passed by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority”.

Also read: The Central Vista Judgment and the Supreme Court’s Blind Spot on Environment Law

The petition had also noted that “at a time when the city of Delhi is grappling with a devastating coronavirus outbreak, all efforts, particularly and more so by the State and its agencies, have to be towards controlling the spiralling situation”. In these circumstances, it cautioned that “the impugned acts of the respondents, will nullify and negate all those efforts.”

The Bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh upon hearing the counsel for the petitioners clarified that “we are not issuing notice”. The bench said it wants to study the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court before it hears the matter.

Though Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma said that he would file a response and agreed for an earlier listing, on coming Monday, May 10, the Bench posted the matter for hearing on May 17.

Incidentally, the Central Vista project envisages construction of a new Parliament House, a new residential complex that will house the prime minister and the vice-president, as well as several new office buildings and a Central Secretariat that will accommodate ministry offices.

Rejecting a batch of petitions challenging the scheme for alleged violation of land use and environmental norms, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had on January 5 given the go-ahead to the project.

The petitions had challenged the notification issued by the Delhi Development Authority on December 21, 2019 regarding changes in land use for the redevelopment project. They had also claimed that DDA was not vested with the power to change the land use and alter the standards of population density. Also, the petitioners had charged that the proper public hearings were not held to seeking the objections of the stakeholders and that they were only conducted as a mere formality without any meaningful consequence.

Also read: Behind the Lives Lost During the Pandemic Lie India’s Failing Public Institutions

The apex court, by a 2:1 majority, however, held that the exercise of the power under the Delhi Development Authority Act was just and valid and so was the grant of environmental clearances by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

While Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari were in consonance with the continuation of the project, Justice Sanjiv Khanna dissented with their views, saying while the award of the project cannot be faulted with, prior approval of the heritage committee was required when it came to change in land use.

“However, on the question of grant of change of land use, I have a different opinion. I have held that the same was bad in law. There was no prior approval of Heritage Conservation Committee and thus matter is remitted back for public hearing. On the environmental clearance aspect, it was a non speaking order,” he wrote in his order.