In a bizarre turn of events last week, the chief justice of the Delhi high court heard a plea on a pending matter on the government’s grand Central Vista construction plan and passed an ex parte order.
Chief Justice D.N. Patel heard the matter and undid the existing order of Justice Rajiv Shakdher, which had stated that “in case, a decision is taken to notify the proposed changes in MPD 2020-21 [Delhi’s master plan], the DDA will approach the court before notifying such decision.”
This order of Justice Shakdher was passed after hearing two sets of petitioners in Rajeev Suri v. Union of India & Lt. Col Anuj Srivastava & Ors regarding the Delhi Development Authority’s proposal to change land use to accommodate the redevelopment of the Central Vista, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project.
Representing the Central government, solicitor general (SG) Tushar Mehta, a busy man these days given the lawlessness in Delhi, appeared for the centre while the ASG appeared for DDA. They stated that the petitions ought to be heard as a PIL and argued for the transfer of the petition from the single judge bench to the Delhi high court chief justice’s bench.
Justice Patel permitted this even though the case had earlier been allocated to Justice Shakdher’s bench.
DDA’s change of land use
The petitions against the DDA’s proposed change of land use (CLU) were filed after DDA’s mockery of its own procedures to notify the CLU.
DDA published a notice on December 21, 2019, in newspapers, asking people to send their objections, if any, within a month’s time. Over a thousand people sent their objections in response.
The DDA’s lack of interest in listening to the objections was revealed by the fact that it gave all these people only notice of one day to appear before the panel.
As many as 1,292 people were invited to a hearing that was to last over two days. The hearing is likely to go down in the record books as a classic example of the bureaucratisation of democracy. DDA officials sat mute as they “heard” speaker after speaker stating, in emphatic terms, their opposition to the proposed CLU.
The speakers list included Rajeev Suri, Anuj Srivastava and many others who made their objections and reasons for the same very clear to the DDA. They were then compelled to file cases in court because the DDA officials at the hearing did not reassure the speakers that the 100% objection to the CLU seen at the hearing would mean that the CLU would not be done.
The DDAs track record also gave no hope. This was not the first time the DDA would issue a CLU notification despite massive opposition by people who live in this city and who still care enough to go to these official hearings that only ignore public concerns in the name of hearing them.
Ex parte order
The cases filed before Justice Shakdher’s court saw two hearings in a matter of two weeks. One was with respect to the legal questions on the DDA’s CLU procedures. The other was to bring to the court’s attention that the government had sought to obtain environmental clearance (EC) for the proposed new parliament – misleadingly titled ‘Expansion and Renovation of Existing Parliament Building, New Delhi’ – in the light of the CLU being sub judice.
In both hearings, Justice Shakdher stated that the DDA should not amend land use without the court’s permission and that even if the EC is considered by the ministry, no tree felling should be undertaken on the site before the next hearing scheduled for March 24.
Clearly, this did not go down well with the government and this was indicated by the presence of the SG himself in court on February 28, 2020.
Chief Justice Patel’s court was persuaded by the SG that this is a “public interest litigation” and therefore found it fit to bring the matter to itself from the single judge bench of Justice Shakdher.
But the shameful irony is that in the same breath, the CJ allowed the DDA to notify the CLU, without even hearing the petitioners.
How comforting is it then that the Chief Justice has now set May 6 as the date for the next hearing? By this time, the government may have even issued tenders for the project.
The legal routes to justice in India are increasingly being closed off.
With its approach, the higher judiciary is not ignoring but blocking any hope for communities and people harassed, abused and violated of their basic rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. As nationalism and criminality merge on the streets, the higher courts have failed miserably at stopping the legal autocracy of the government.
From the CAA to Central Vista, the Modi government has changed laws, brought in notifications and even pushed around judges who interrogate their actions.
Standing in the secure halls of the higher courts, it is clear that we are going through the motions of a long and dark emergency.
Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli are with the Centre for Policy Research.