Why environmental impacts and other costs of the Central Vista project may never be known

There continues to be a democratic deficit in the manner in which this project is being executed and illegalities continue to shroud it.
Last Updated 10 May 2021, 06:59 IST

The redevelopment of the Central Vista from Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate (and actually extending to the Yamuna floodplains) has once again received public backlash and political criticism. The images of barricading and digging of Rajpath lawns prioritised as an “essential service” has created palpable anger amongst citizens. Questions that started as to why at all have now changed to why now. Citizens are desperately calling for the reprioritisation of the government’s spending to address a national health crisis. The demands to defer or reorganise government spending are understandable given the state of collapse of the health infrastructure. There is only scorn and dismissiveness from the government, when citizens seek reconsideration of the high-level decisions and deadlines, on moral and ethical grounds.

But there continues to be a democratic deficit in the manner in which this project is being executed and illegalities continue to shroud it. They have been so since 2019 when the project was first announced and have continued to remain unaddressed even after the Supreme Court pronounced its split verdict on the issues regarding the construction of the new parliament in January 2021. That verdict awaits a review, but that too may be delayed due to Covid.

The Central Vista project comprises the construction of a brand-new Parliament building and landscaping of open public spaces with bridges and utility infrastructure all along the stretch of Rajpath, i.e the central vista avenue. It also includes the construction of ten new office buildings for the central government known as the common central secretariat, SPG building, a new residence for the prime minister and the Vice President’s Estate. The project will only be complete with the construction of underground metro rail infrastructure and “people mover” for government officials. It also includes the construction of an “iconic structure” at the New India Garden on the banks of the Yamuna river.

None of this is essential if the government’s limited arguments through twitter and friendly news channels are taken at face value. The information portal promised by the urban development minister almost a year ago remains just that, an empty promise. Experts have suggested ways to expand the seating capacity of the existing Parliament instead of making a new one. The avenue was beautiful and popular and attracted huge numbers of tourists and local picnickers. The sarkari buildings could have been repaired and the present PM house was only built a few years ago.

Although these opinions were given to the government by many parliamentarians, architects and others who opposed this project as pointless extravagance and political symbolism, the government claimed that it was its prerogative to build this project. And so, despite failing the test of governance principles of transparency, participation and accountability, the project was pushed through.

In the last two years, the design and execution of the Central Vista project have exploited the limits of India’s environmental laws to regulate such massive urban redevelopment project both in scale and political prestige. The project has gained significantly from a weak regulatory framework that allowed urban construction projects lesser environmental scrutiny and highly constrained public participation. The project proponents have also been allowed to slice the project into several parts, most of which will never be assessed for their environmental viability.

Out of these, only the cluster of projects part of the common central secretariat and the PM residence has seen an environmental impact assessment, based on which their approval has been recently recommended. All the digging, barricading and building bridges over Rajpath as the Central Vista avenue is underway without environment clearance. As stand-alone projects the construction of the new parliament building and the underground metro have also escaped environmental impact assessments.

The Central Vista is the country’s social, historical and ecological commons. Residents and visitors had made this open space their own through protests and simple, everyday pleasures and yet had no say in what is being made of it now. The governmental grab of what is ours is what makes the Central Vista project deeply flawed. Now that it is being made when we grapple with the most terrifying period of our lives, the Central Vista project will be the symbol of national trauma.

(The authors are researchers at the Centre for Policy Research.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 10 May 2021, 06:59 IST)

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