The plan to build a new parliament building has received two key approvals, including from the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee, taking a crucial but controversial government project a step closer to reality.
The opposition Congress said the decision reflected the government’s “absurd priorities” at a time when the country was battling an epidemic, and independent experts who were meant to be part of one of the clearances that were issued late last month said the decision was taken despite their requests to delay deliberations.
In addition to the approval by the EAC, which assesses a project on whether its environmental impact is acceptable, the proposal for the new building was cleared by the Central Vista committee. Both approvals came around the same time — towards the end of April.
The second committee has representatives from the government and developers, as well as independent experts who protested the decision saying they sought a deferment because of the restrictions on movement due to the lockdown in force to check the spread of the coronavirus disease.
“They went ahead without any external member in attendance. It includes two members from the Institute of Town Planners (ITP) and two from Indian Institute of Architects (IIA). Only government officials were there, this is clearly a conflict of interest. Even the Supreme Court on Thursday said ‘there is no hurry to hear the matter on Central Vista’ then what was the urgency in holding this meeting despite our requests to postpone it? We had several concerns, we had informed adequate arrangements should be made for us to attend but we got a notice on April 21 that the meeting will be held,” said Balbir Verma, member IIA.
The Central Vista committee, in the minutes of its meeting held on April 23, explained its decision to go ahead with the deliberations. “…Keeping in view the importance of the project in nation’s interest and time scale for its implementation, the meeting was held as per issued meeting notice”.
In meetings held between April 22 and 24, the other government committee – the EAC — cleared the proposal with certain conditions, among them being the outcome of the legal challenge filed with courts as well as the requisite scrutiny by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), according to the minutes published on the environment ministry’s Parivesh website.
The new parliament building is a part of the Centre’s larger plan to give a makeover to the Central Vista, the 3-km stretch between the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the India Gate that is flanked by government offices built decades ago. The parliament building itself will cost an estimated cost of ~922 crores.
The project has been criticised by urban planners and civil society groups for spending hundreds of crores on renovating a heritage structure in the midst of an economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Activists have also criticised the manner in which the Central Vista renovation is being cleared: it has been split up into smaller projects that makes it easier to obtain requisite environmental approvals, they said.
SC is hearing two petitions filed by citizens against the way public hearing was conducted to facilitate the project and challenging the legal validity of the land use change process. The land use of the 9.5-acre plot has been changed from “recreational” to “Parliament” by the Delhi Development Authority in March.
One of the petitioners moved the Delhi high court on Friday. The matter has been adjourned.
The EAC minutes addresses concerns raised by activists such as LokPATH and other residents groups by answering each concern. For example, civil society groups said the parliament is structurally a part of the composite notified heritage precinct, the Central Vista. “The application completely disregards the historical, cultural and social importance of the existing Parliament by treating its “expansion and renovation” as any other regular construction project,” they said.
To which, the EAC said: “The project proponents are aware of the heritage value of the Parliament Building. It is precisely because of the need to protect its heritage value, besides other practical aspects such as seating more members for the future and providing them with necessary infrastructure, that the project has been conceived.”
Experts said it was a “fait accompli” situation where the land use changed and clearance has been recommended before the outcome of the SC case. “All the concerns of building-by-building approach to impact assessment of the Central Vista project remain. The cumulative impacts of the entire central vista redevelopment over a much larger area are very different from that of one new Parliament building. What gets even more questionable today is that a ₹922 crore new Parliament is approved when the country is dealing with a severe economic, humanitarian and environmental crisis,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.