The Constitutional Conduct Group’s Open Letter to Prime Minister of India – Central Vista Project
The Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG) has addressed a letter to the Prime Minister of India highlighting the need to comprehensively review the Central Vista project and to engage in dialogue with citizens on this subject.
22 December 2020
Dear Prime Minister,
We are a group of retired officers of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. We have come together as the Constitutional Conduct Group because we believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Indian Constitution, and in safeguarding its values. We are writing to you today to convey our dismay at the manner in which your government, and you, as its head, have chosen to completely disregard the Rule of Law in the matter of the Central Vista Redevelopment project.
This project, from its very inception, has been marked by a degree of executive highhandedness rarely witnessed before. Whether it was in inviting design options, selecting consultants, holding fair and transparent stakeholder consultations, obtaining approvals of the institutions and authorities dealing with urban design, planning and environmental clearances — everything was done to ensure that rules and procedures were given short shrift, due processes treated with contempt and a predetermined plan of action bulldozed through. Of particular concern is the manner in which environmental clearances were obtained for a plan which treats the green spaces and the built heritage of the Central Vista as an unnecessary hurdle to the achievement of objectives driven by monumental ambition.
Today, we are writing about another aspect of the proposed Central Vista redevelopment: the brazen impropriety in going ahead with the construction of the new Parliament building while the matter is still sub judice. You are aware that the legality of the various approvals given has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the cases have been heard and reserved for orders on November 7, 2020. Despite these facts, your government
acted as if this were only a minor hindrance and blithely went ahead with implementing the construction plans, starting with removing several trees and planning a major foundation stone laying ceremony. We believe that this was the height of impropriety when the very basics of the project were under challenge. While the case was sub judice, it was incumbent upon the Government to await its outcome. Was the plan to present a fait accompli that would be difficult to reverse?
The disregard of the government for the court proceedings was so blatant that the Supreme Court was constrained to rebuke the government for not acting in a prudent manner, and failing to show deference to the Court. On December 7, 2020, the Supreme Court took up the matter suo motu, and demanded an undertaking from the government that no action would be taken before the Court gave its final orders. That the Court did permit the laying of the foundation stone as an exception because the preparations had already been made is, to us, surprising and a matter of regret. While laying the foundation stone, your speech did not mention, even once, that the construction of the new Parliament building at that spot was conditional on the final decision of the Supreme Court.
We wonder what locus standi the Prime Minister has to lay the foundation stone of the Parliament building. The Prime Minister is the head of the executive, not of the legislature. For a building that will accommodate the two Houses of Parliament, the appropriate protocol would have been for the President of India to lay the foundation stone. This was a clear instance of breach of Constitutional propriety.
The removal of several trees from Plot 118 and the laying of the foundation stone of the new Parliament building are only some of the violations committed by the government. The lackadaisical approach to rules and regulations and to administrative and legal processes is apparent from the fact that applications to different authorities give different figures for the same item. For instance, the number of trees on Plot 118 was shown as 333 when requesting the Ministry of Environment for clearance, but 404 when writing to the Delhi Forest Department. Similarly, the government originally proposed 12 buildings in the Central Vista area (ten central secretariat buildings, a Raksha Bhavan and a central conference centre) in their application to the Ministry of Environment. The day after the TORs were cleared, they stated that there would be three additional buildings in the same area (viz. the Prime Minister’s office and residence, an SPG office and the Vice President’s office and residence). Again, on 17 December 2020, another change was made. These frequent changes in plans and upward revision of costs demonstrate the haste with which this massive project is being undertaken, without adequate internal consultations or application of mind. That Delhi is an earthquake prone zone makes the project doubly hazardous. Such a cavalier attitude is reprehensible.
Notwithstanding the specious reasoning as to why a new Parliament building is at all necessary, it is a matter of great dismay that at a time when we are faced with an economy in perilous decline and a pandemic which has brought untold misery to millions, the government has chosen to invest vast sums on a project which represents nothing but the pursuit of pomp and grandeur. We have a public health infrastructure crying out for investment of public resources that could benefit substantially from the kind of investment planned for the Central Vista project; yet, for the government it seems that this wasteful and unnecessary project must take precedence over social priorities like health and education.
While the matter is in the courts and further construction activities are suspended, we urge the government to seize this as an opportunity to review the project in its entirety. We strongly believe that the project should not be implemented, particularly at this time. However, even if the government decides to go ahead in principle, the project must be subjected to critical scrutiny by citizens and independent experts, plans must be redrawn to make them compatible with environmental and heritage conservation standards and the due processes of law relating to such projects must be followed.
The essence of a democratic ethos is to listen to the voices of citizens and engage in dialogue with them. There has been a noticeable and worrisome tendency on the part of the government to disregard and ignore the arguments of those who disagree with the official perspective and, worse still, to criminalize dissent. We urge you to reverse these trends and not peremptorily dismiss all opposing viewpoints.