Central Vista: Build in haste, repent at leisure? Govt knows best, Supreme Court told

The bid document stated that Govt is creating a legacy for the next 150-200 years. But the entire process of awarding the tender took seven to 10 weeks during lockdown, submitted Shyam Divan to SC

Central Vista: Build in haste, repent at leisure? Govt knows best, Supreme Court told
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The Supreme Court of India, which has completed its hearing of a batch of petitions challenging the haste with which the Union Government is going ahead to build a new complex in Lutyens Delhi’s central vista, has reserved its order. But work on the project has already started.

Pointing out the rules, convention and best practices flouted by the Government, Senior Advocate Shyam Divan on behalf of petitioners questioned the lack of consultation and haste.

For the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, conceptualised in 1986-89, an open, single stage global design competition was held, where over 120 bids were received.

Central Vista: Build in haste, repent at leisure? Govt knows best, Supreme Court told

For the Parliament Library, in 1989, a national design competition was conducted. And most recently for the National War Memorial and Museum in 2016, a two-stage open global design competition was held where over 400 bids were received, the court was told. But in stark contrast, for the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, it was a 7-week process. As per the pre-bid meeting, 24 bidders had participated. A total of 6 bids were received. After the technical bids, presentations were to be made on approach and methodology to a jury whose composition is not known. Ultimately, 4 were selected for the financial bids.

At least 10 bidders had sought more time to work out the methodology, vision and the Master Plan. They wanted three to four weeks extra time but the Government allowed them an extension of one week.

The court was informed that the Council of Architecture and the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), besides other well-known architects, had written to the Government and objected to the haste. They received no response. In a press note IIA, Northern Chapter, asserted that “the methodology of selection of the lowest bidder is akin to a supplier of goods”. They wrote that the unseemly haste with which the government was proceeding would bring about disastrous consequences- an unmitigated cultural and environmental disaster” but their concerns were ignored.

Referring to a RTI reply made in March, 2020, Divan informed the court that the response avoided naming people who approved the design and the criteria on which the selection was based.

“The most troubling reply is when they were asked if the PMO was involved in the selection, they replied ‘no’! So, the CPWD is to decide whether the people of India get a new Parliament or a refurbished Parliament and it doesn’t even do that itself! It leaves it to a consultant who is unknown and could have even been a foreign party! Just this one point is enough to strike down the whole project”, he urged.

“None of the documents are in the public domain! The public has the right to know whether the proposal was challenged or not! It is no defence secret!” contended Mr. Diwan.

“In a case which required the highest standard of scrutiny, the response of the government has been ‘show us the law and we will show you how we complied with it’.” “They are taking to the Rule by Law rather than the Rule of Law! Everything from the conception and planning was done in an opaque manner, followed by a wiggly tender, intended to achieve a predetermined outcome!”

“The counter affidavit of the Respondents states that there are no statutory provisions for public consultation, heritage impact studies, design competition for redeveloping the Central Vista. The petitioners say that where national symbols are involved, there has to be wide public debate and impact assessment studies and the maximum possible participation! In Lok Prahari, Your Lordships have held that the principle of limited governance applies to heritage and that public property cannot just be handed out to a government functionary even if they have rendered yeoman service!”Divan argued.

“There were no empirical studies to justify the destruction of such property at huge cost to the public exchequer. Nothing to show that there are problems with the Central Vista and that the existing Parliament cannot be utilised. There is just a bare averment in their counter affidavit that there are studies but there is no such thing in the public domain...”, he argued.

The government must hold consultation, ensure maximum transparency at all stages of decision-making, allow fair competition, give adequate time to ensure maximum participation, and have a diverse and representative jury of experts, he submitted.

“Otherwise, the next government may come and say ‘I don’t like this’. Some government may want to shift the capital, like Mohammad bin Tughlaq!”

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