Poetic licence aside, a similar situation is brewing in India after the Supreme Court gave its assent to the Central Vista Development Project that involves construction of a new Parliament building, in a two-to-one majority last week.
A three-judge SC bench greenlit the politically significant project aimed at ushering in a larger workspace and increased efficiency for the functioning of India’s topmost legislative office. The integrated administrative block will house the ministries and departments of the Centre and will be located in New Delhi. The Project, proposed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in Sept 2019, envisions a new triangular Parliament building that can seat 900-1,200 MPs. Its construction is expected to be completed by August 2022 when India celebrates its 75th year of independence. The existing 93-year-old Parliament House will be retrofitted and used on special occasions. It may be noted that the Project, which is estimated to cost Rs 20,000 cr also involves the redevelopment of 86 acres of land in Lutyens’s Delhi. The region is home to iconic structures like Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, North Block and South Block. The cost of constructing the new Parliament building alone is Rs 971 cr.
The Court’s decision has riled up members of the Opposition, and the common man on the street. The question on their minds is: does the government have Rs 20,000 cr to spare on constructing a new Parliament building, when the majority of the nation is reeling from the impact of the pandemic – which has led to the loss of livelihood – in the range of 41 lakh youth being rendered unemployed. Over 75 per cent of the unorganised sector in India found itself jobless after the nationwide lockdowns were imposed. Recently, the World Bank said the Indian economy is set to contract by 9.6% in FY21. Even more troubling, the Centre was still haggling with the Serum Institute of India over the price point of the much needed COVID vaccine, 70 mn doses of which are now lying in limbo in cold storage.
The financial resources to be poured into the Project is just the tip of the iceberg. Justice Sanjiv Khanna, who offered the dissenting judgment in the case in a 179-page document, spoke about how public participation in decision-making was treated as a mechanical exercise or formality in the case of this project. Khanna had raised pertinent points concerning the Project such as the failure to take prior approval from the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). The HCC is one of the external agencies that must give approval before any major alteration or use of land is carried out in areas categorised under Listed Heritage Buildings. Buildings categorised as Grade I include the Parliament House, National Archives, North and South Block, as well as the Central Vista precincts.
According to Khanna, who also struck down the environmental clearances granted to the Project, those who had expressed reservations on various aspects of the revamp were short-changed on time when it came to stating their perspectives. As per law, before the preparation of any plan and its submission to the Centre, the Delhi Development Authority must invite suggestions and objections from the public. He had also questioned if the revamp would restrict the access enjoyed by the common public to the greens, while adding that a meeting held concerning this Project in April 2020 that was conspicuous by the absence of four independent representatives from professional bodies, was self-explanatory. The million-dollar question is whether a billion-dollar revamp is even required for a fully functional government office, especially at a time when many taxpayers have had to tighten their belts over job loss and salary cuts. But as they say, ‘let them eat cake’.