Central Vista: Alpana Kishore rebuts government’s response to her article, Part 2

Posterity will not overlook the illegitimacy that is clearly stamped on this project.

ByAlpana Kishore
Central Vista: Alpana Kishore rebuts government’s response to her article, Part 2
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Points 6-11 of Team MoHUA’s response concern my story in Newslaundry last month. This is my point-by-point rebuttal.

Point 6: Team MoHUA contends that the story is contradictory because it suggests that laws changed in 2016 for the entire nation were done keeping Central Vista in mind.

The story does not contend at any point that the laws amended/initiated in 2016-17 were meant only for the Central Vista project but that it would be impossible without them. These amended laws magically smoothened its clearances by relaxing procedural controls or strengthening government hold. Most certainly if the Central Public Works Department, or CPWD, had not been made a local body and allowed to self-sanction, the project would have got stuck at the very first stage of submission to New Delhi Municipal Corporation because it did not conform to bye-laws.

One of these smoothening laws was a 120-year-old colonial law, the Government Buildings Act, 1899, or GBA. The story had critiqued the use of this colonial law. However, Team MoHUA argues that most of our laws emerge from the colonial era and so any criticism on adopting GBA is invalid.

Such assertions are akin to casting vilifications on police for arresting an accused, based on Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code because they emerged from the colonial era.”

But both IPC and CrPC are post-constitutional laws. Both are works in progress, constantly being fine-tuned to reflect contemporary realities and norms. Several illiberal, outdated sections have been scrapped/amended like adultery (497) and most recently homosexuality (377) in IPC. Others have been added like dowry deaths (304B) or sexual harassment (376 A,B,C,D). CrPC was entirely overhauled in 1973 and its 1898 parent law repealed.

Therefore, both colonial laws have been and still are being refined, through the filter of the Indian constitution. This retains their structural tenets but tempers them to reflect a free, modern republic where the government serves at the pleasure of the people not the other way around. A pre-constitutional law like the GBA 1899 has not gone through this tempering. It retains the bare force of a colonial law against a subjugated populace that has no right to question it.

Point 7: Team MoHUA states that the Newslaundry story falters on facts as, “There have been suggestions that the elected local body of New Delhi Municipal Council was bypassed by CPWD, during the approval stage. However NDMC is not an elected body but a nominated body.”

This is not a “suggestion”, it is a fact. CPWD has bypassed NDMC.

However, Team MoHUA’s implications are that if a), NDMC is a nominated body, not an elected one, then b), it is okay to bypass it and dispense with inspection for bye-law compliance. Both are incorrect.

As possibly the tiniest local body in the country, NDMC has the giant union MoHUA uncomfortably sitting on top of it. Yet, the NDMC Act was amended in 2012 (see picture) precisely to align it with the 74th amendment to the constitution that called for greater power to local bodies. Seven of its 13 members are from the public, and three of them are elected representatives. Therefore, the public’s role in NDMC is very much institutionalised.

The second contention that it’s okay to bypass NDMC because CPWD will self-sanction is far more serious.

Team MoHUA downplays the flagrant impropriety of evading local body sanction by claiming that others will do the same job. “There is Committee of Architects, Engineers and Horticulturists who examined the proposal and the final proposal submitted is fully compliant with the Building Bye Laws in terms of FAR, ground coverage, setbacks, specific area norms.”

This committee, if it exists, is not a statutory body with legislated powers. It certainly cannot replace the statutory authority of NDMC.

Team MoHUA also claims that CPWD is fully compliant with the bye-laws. But if they are not, who is going to verify that – since they are themselves the sanctioners? As there are no technical details in the public domain, the government wants us, the public, to take this compliance on trust.

As it turns out, this trust is misplaced. The proposal is not compliant with existing bye-laws.

The Environmental Impact Assessment submitted claims that the secretariat buildings will conform to the permissible FAR of 200. Calculated by dividing the built up areas by the plot size as submitted by the CPWD-appointed consultant, FAR actually comes to 300 – a grossly erroneous 50 percent more. That’s like saying you were given permission to make 4-5 storeys but have made 8-9 instead! The danger of self-sanctioning is immediately apparent.

Yet, because NDMC has not been allowed to do their job, no one is punishing this glaring non-compliance because these so-called ‘slips’ are incredibly helpful to the project’s original plans to make legally non-compliant buildings in the Central Vista. No one will discover them later either because once the buildings are up and the illegality has been embedded – no one is going to be allowed in with a measuring tape.

A ‘slip’ like this would cost an ordinary citizen his entire construction. It would simply be demolished.

Point 8: Team MoHUA states that contrary to apprehensions expressed in the Newslaundry story, on public land use spaces being snatched away, green spaces will actually increase by 5.64 acres.

The math doesn’t add up to this assertion. Simply because, like all government pronouncements on the Central Vista, this too, is about smoke and mirrors!

The four plots marked for socio-cultural use in Lutyens’ original plan, jutted out into the Rajpath lawns as a way of giving spatial and visual primacy to these public institutions of grand prominence in the setting of a cultural hub. (See map and picture.)

Bimal Patel, the architect, has straightened out these jutting out heritage plot lines (also a violation of heritage laws) in order to construct the Common Secretariat buildings. The land he has decided not to use (5.64 acres) has been ‘added’ to the Rajpath lawns.

This land already belonged to the public under ‘Sociocultural Use’ inside the National Museum and the National Archives plots. The only difference is that it now lies outside the plot and is labelled for ‘Recreational Use’. Both were classified as being for ‘Public Use’. No green space has been ‘added’ for Public Use from government land.

In fact, there is a net reduction of 26.5 acres of green spaces in the Central Vista, since both the new PM House and the new parliament were former parks.

Team MoHUA claims that Plot No 118, the District Park taken over for the new parliament, had already been notified “earlier” and that its use for parking, electric substation, hutments etc made it non-functional long ago, i.e. to call it as a ‘loss of green/public space’ is not valid.

This is incorrect. Plot No 118 was not notified “earlier” but on March 20, 2020 (see picture), the same time as the others, in one grand swoop of 100 acres of Public Use land transferred overnight to the state. Its use for parking, hutments, etc was within permissible uses or at maximum, condonable offences for its ‘Recreational Use’.

These temporary uses do not change either the essential ‘public’ character of the plot or its ‘green’ value as Team MoHUA seems to suggest. Authorised visitors and MPs could use its abutting garden for recreation. An astonishing 495 trees within the plot were chopped down for the new parliament – an irretrievable environmental, public and, very definitely, green loss.

The transaction then still remains grievously unequal. A hundred acres of public land has been transferred for ‘Government Use’. No land has been transferred the other way around.

Point 9: Team MoHUA claims that media reports of a haphazard and disjointed environmental clearance process are incorrect and that detailed EIAs have been carried out for all the buildings. The Expert Appraisal Committee “recommended justified clearance on 2nd May 2021”.

The proposal for environmental clearance for components of the project (other than the parliament) was submitted three times each with separate bits. The first proposal included only the secretariat buildings. This was withdrawn. The second proposal included the PMO and residences. This was withdrawn. The third proposal excluded the PMO. The Expert Appraisal Committee therefore did not have the details of the PMO when they finished reviewing the application. Bizarrely, the PMO was then added again a day after they gave their recommendations.

How can this process not be called haphazard and disjointed!

A benefit of these disjointed submissions was to submit new parliament as a standalone project to escape the detailed (required for large projects) Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA. It also got environmental clearance shamefully, not as a new construction but as an ‘extension’ – a less demanding assessment with no compulsory public consultation. Conveniently, the new parliament was knocked out of the main project for all approvals but is popped back in as the flagship, for government grandstanding on the project as a symbol of “New India”.

Other alarming environmental scenarios await that are not even part of the environmental assessments.

The Traffic Impact Assessment includes no study on the Automated People Mover (supposed to reduce traffic), yet terrifyingly recommends replacing key roundabouts with flyovers and rampant road widening of historic roads implying the mass destruction of their mature trees. The EIA excludes the impact of 15-metre (four storey) basements for parking and the underground on the groundwater levels of a city that are predicted to run out anytime.

The combined environmental clearance given in April 2021 is therefore missing several components. The most shocking of these is the Rajpath lawns currently being dug up. This component has neither gone through an EIA nor received an environmental clearance.

In a nutshell, the public has only seen the tip of the iceberg of the cumulative impact of this colossal project.

Point 10: Team MoHUA says that the story erroneously reports that the scrutiny process was diluted by the loose online protocols of the OPAAS system. In fact, they say it has actually enhanced transparency with objections duly uploaded in the public domain.

It is impossible to professionally scrutinize 17.5 lakh square metres of built space in one evening from a screen of low-resolution images like these submitted for the EC.

Suffice it to say the members of committees were given neither time nor professional resources/standards to do their job. Scaled, detailed hard copies were not available. Some described being asked to study stacks of documents in a few hours, give their opinion and return them to a minder since they were not allowed to keep a copy. This unprofessional system of submission to specialist committees is described in detail in the story.

As for objections being uploaded in the public domain – they have to be made in the first place. It is farcical that no objections were made in a meeting of the Heritage Conservation Committee (whose very job it is to protect heritage) and it mutely passed the new parliament as a separate entity that supposedly “does not fall in any listed heritage building or precincts” and will “not mar the grandeur of existing Parliament Building”. How did no one challenge these assertions? The minutes of the HCC meeting say absolutely nothing about any discussion or debate (see picture). This only proves that either the members didn’t do their job or that their objections were not minuted.

Despite the promises made by the government as late as August last year, not a single Central Vista project plan submitted to the DUAC exists in the public domain nor any documents like Detailed Project Reports or cost estimates that you would expect to find for a project claimed to be “of national importance” and estimated to last 250 years.

The Newslaundry story details several instances of salami slicing. Team MoHUA however claims this is a normal practice. “It has been insinuated that the project was broken up into several micro projects to get approvals”...however due approvals are always taken for specific projects, “never for the entire Master Plan” of the whole project.

This is incorrect. Approval for a project master plan must be taken from the statutory authority (i.e. the DDA's Technical Committee) that scrutinises it for compliance to the Master Plan of Delhi.

This was neither sought, nor given – another wholesale bypass of the lawful scrutiny process.

Because there was no way this project could get clearances the normal way or as a cumulative whole, its project managers made salami slicing its default setting. Team MoHUA has sought to ‘normalise’ this. However, there is nothing ‘normal’ about erroneous, falsified or malafide submissions.

For example, chopping up the Central Vista precinct listed as Grade 1 Heritage to mean only the road Rajpath and its abutting lawns but not the buildings or Vijay Chowk, even though it is listed as one single precinct in the HCC, the UNESCO World Heritage Site dossier etc, precisely to prevent such malicious salami slicing.

Then there is the partial disclosure tactic. There are 11 Common Secretariat buildings on different-sized plot shapes like squares, rectangles and triangles. Obviously each plot will generate its own vastly different FAR if built to the same number of floors and ground coverage. Yet a set of detailed drawings for only one building has been submitted for environmental clearance though there are three other types. Buildings have been wrongly listed on wrong plots, i.e. the maps don’t reconcile with the data submitted.

Point 11: The Supreme Court passed a majority judgement spanning 604 pages which upheld the processes undertaken and permissions received by the project proponent. This has been taken by Team MoHUA to imply no objections are valid.

The Supreme Court judgement was on only three issues – the construction of the new parliament, its environmental assessment and land use change of 100 acres. This does not give an automatic green signal for all the other moving parts of this project.

Because the majority judgement chose not to opine on the performance of specialist committees and due process, this does not mean that their unlawfulness or illegitimacy is irrelevant. In fact, the minority judgement in a 10-point order makes it painfully clear that the subversion of due process was so severe that all decisions/permissions had to be quashed.

My story dealt with this subversion of due process too. Team MoHUA’s reiteration of the Supreme Court’s majority judgement does not mean posterity will overlook the whopping illegitimacy that is clearly stamped on this project.

This is the second part of a rebuttal to the government’s response to a Newslaundry piece on the Central Vista project. Read the first part.

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