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Central Vista Project Of National Importance': Delhi HC Dismisses Plea To Suspend Work Amid COVID

  It is really most heartening to note that in a significant development with far reaching consequences, the Delhi High Court has in a latest, learned, laudable and landmark judgment titled Anya Malhotra & Anr. Vs Union of India & Ors. in W.P.(C) 5150/2021 & C.M.APPLs. 15790/2021 & 16261/2021 that was reserved on 17 May and then finally pronounced on 31 May, 2021, a Division Bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh of Delhi High Court dismissed with costs of Rs. 1,00,000/- a public interest litigation that was seeking the temporary suspension of construction work on Central Vista Redevelopment Project, in light of COVID. The Delhi High Court said that the government had already stated that the workers were "staying on site" and all arrangements had been made to ensure Covid-19 appropriate behaviour on site. So there was no valid reason to stop the construction work!

                         Needless to state, those who are very strong critics of this Central Vista project cannot take it for granted that the Delhi High Court minced just no words to put across what is quite manifest also that, "This work is part and parcel of Central Vista Project and of vital public importance. The construction of Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project cannot be seen in isolation. In fact, the whole Central Vista Project is an essential project of national importance, where the sovereign functions  of Parliament are also to be conducted. Public is vitally interested in this project."
                        It cannot be lightly dismissed that while calling the petition "motivated", the Delhi High Court imposed a cost of Rs 1 lakh on the petitioners - Anya Malhotra who is a translator and Sohail Hashmi who is a historian who sought to halt the ongoing part redevelopment of the Central Vista Avenue, which includes both sides of Rajpath, on the  grounds that the work could become a super spreader event. The petitioners were represented by a battery of lawyers led by eminent and senior advocate Siddharth Luthra who argued forcefully the petitioners case but the Delhi High Court remained unconvinced and ruled against the petitioners! The petitioners still have the option of going for appeal but this is right now certainly a big setback for them! But they must remember always what even Delhi High Court in this case itself acknowledged that the legality of the project has been upheld previoúsly by the Apex Court itself.
                               To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 2 of this notable judgment authored by Chief Justice DN Patel for himself and Ms Justice Jyoti Singh wherein it is put forth that, "At the outset, Mr. Siddharth Luthra, learned Senior Counsel appearing for the petitioners submitted that the petitioners were not pressing the reliefs claimed in prayer clause (iii) of the instant writ petition. Mr. Luthra submitted that the jurisdiction of this Court has been invoked to enforce the Orders issued by Delhi Disaster Management Authority (hereinafter referred to as 'DDMA') and in the light of the said Orders directions are sought to Respondents No. 1 and 2 to forthwith halt/suspend all construction activities of the Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project awarded to Respondent no. 4 as also a writ in the nature of mandamus commanding Respondent no. 3 to forthwith withdraw and rescind the movement pass dated 19th April, 2021 (Annexure P-7 to the memo of this petition), during the present peak phase of the Pandemic Covid-19."
                    As against this, it is then observed in para 12 that, Mr. Tushar Mehta, Learned Solicitor General of India addressed arguments on behalf of Respondents No. 1 and 2. He submitted that the scope of work for the project in question is not what is colloquially referred to as 'Central Visa Project', which includes the Parliament, refurbishment of North Block, South Block, construction of new offices for Central Government, i.e., common Central Secretariat, central conference facilities etc. The scope of the work which is the subject-matter of the present petition is limited to the redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue (i.e., both sides of Rajpath) where the Republic Day Celebrations are held on 26th January every year. It is a matter of common knowledge that it is a very important public place and most widely visited by common public and tourists. Scope of work, as per the Learned Solicitor General is as follows:
"(i) Providing public amenities like toilet blocks, paths, parking space, vendor zone; 
(ii) Making four pedestrian underpasses below Janpath and C-Hexagon Road. 
(iii) Improvement of canals, bridges, lawns, lights etc."
                        Furthermore, senior advocate Maninder Singh who appeared for Construction Company Shapoorji Pallonji Group that had emerged as the lowest bidder for redevelopment project objected to the proposal for extension of deadline of the project. In this context, the Bench then while stating his version points out in para 19 that, "We have also heard Mr. Maninder Singh, learned Senior Counsel appearing for Respondent No. 4/SPCPL. Mr. Singh at the outset questioned the bonafides of the petitioners and submitted that there is no public interest involved in the matter and the petition is motivated with the sole purpose of stalling the project. It was submitted by learned Senior Counsel that the work of the Project in question was awarded to Respondent No. 4 after a tender process in January, 2021 and as per the terms of the contract, it is to be completed within 10 months, i.e. by November, 2021. Time is of the essence of the contract as the work includes redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue, where Republic Day Celebrations are held and slightest delay in meeting the time-lines can cause hindrance in celebration of a National Event. The work of the Project had started much before the imposition of the curfew by DDMA and post the imposition of curfew, necessary permissions were sought by Respondent No.4 for a movement pass, which was granted on 19th April, 2021, keeping in view the exigency and urgency of the Project in question."
                                     To put things in perspective, the Bench then after going through the version of all sides observes in para 23 that, "We have heard Learned Senior Counsel for the parties and Learned Solicitor General of India and examined their respective contentions as well as the pleadings and documents on record. Petitioners have laid a challenge to the ongoing construction activity in connection with the work of 'Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project' and seek a direction from this Court to Respondents No. 1 and 2 to forthwith stop the construction activity and a direction to Respondents No. 3 to rescind the movement pass dated 19th April, 2021 in the wake of Pandemic Covid-19 which is in its peak phase."
                      Be it noted, the Bench then remarks in para 24 that, "The case of the petitioners is primarily predicated on the directions issued by DDMA vide its Order dated 19th April, 2021 (Annexure P-6 to the memo of this petition), exercising power under Section 22 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, whereby restriction on movements and activities was imposed and all private offices/establishments, etc. were directed to remain close, except for those exempted/allowed by the said Order."
                        It would be worthwhile to mention that it is then made clear in para 32 that, "Looking to the respective stands of the Respondents and the measures taken on ground as well as the provisions of the various DDMA Orders, we find that the petitioners have not been able to substantiate the allegations made in the writ petition and/or the alleged breach of violation of the DDMA orders. On the contrary, challenge to the on-going construction activity with regard to one particular Project, is a pointer to the ill-intent and lack of bonafides of the petitioners in filing the present petition."
                         For the sake of clarity, the Bench then enunciates in para 33 that, "Central Vista Project includes the Parliament, refurbishment of North Block, South Block, construction of new offices for Central Government, i.e. Common Central Secretariat, Central Conference facilities etc which includes Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project (i.e., both sides of Rajpath where Republic Day celebrations are held every year, on 26th January. Thus, this project is a vital public project. The scope of the work for the aforesaid project is as under:-
"(I) Providing public amenities like toilet blocks, paths, parking space, vendor zone;
(ii) Making four pedestrian underpasses below Janpath and C-Hexagon Road.
(iii) Improvement of canals, bridges, lawns, lights etc.""
                             Most notably, the Bench then underscores in para 34 that, "We may also take note that several other agencies like CPWD, NBCC, DMRC, PWD, IICC and DDA are undertaking construction projects in the territory of National Capital Region of Delhi. It is obvious that petitioners have selectively chosen only one project which is of National importance, at a vital place where Republic Day Celebrations are held in Delhi and is a part and parcel of the larger project, namely, Central Vista Project, legality whereof has already been upheld by Hon'ble the Supreme Court in the judgment dated 5th, January 2021 passed in Transferred Case (Civil) No. 229/2020, reported as 2021 SCC Online SC 7 and which is to be completed within a time bound schedule, i.e. on or before November, 2021. This project cannot be stopped by the Court in view of the aforesaid facts, especially when the requirements of paragrah-8 of the order of the DDMA dated 19th April, 2021 issued under Section 22 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 have been complied with by the Respondents. Necessary steps have been taken by Respondent No. 4 to comply with Covid-19 related protocols and the construction activity does not fall foul of the rigours of the DDMA Orders and is rather in consonance thereof."
                       While. mentioning a valid point for repudiating the petitioners contention, the Bench then enunciates in para 35 that, "As the conditions imposed by the DDMA vide their order dated 19th April, 2021 have been fulfilled by Respondent No. 4, the facts of the present case are entirely different from the facts of the judgments upon which reliance was placed by learned Senior Counsel appearing for the Petitioners and hence, the said judgments do not help the petitioners. We also find that the permission granted for movement of the vehicles by issuing the movement pass dated 19th April, 2021 (Annexure P-7 to the memo of this petition) is absolutely just, legal and proper. The workers who are working at the site have been given the facility to reside onsite, however, there is  a need to transport material for construction. The permission is certainly regulated and only those vehicles which have been permitted, would be allowed to move, in accordance with the movement pass dated 19th April, 2021 and after due scrutiny of their registration numbers."
                             Needless to say, it would be unwise to gloss over what is then stated in para 36 that, "Much has been argued by the learned Senior Counsel for the Petitioners that the project in question is not an 'essential activity' and could be deferred. We do not agree with the learned Senior Counsel for the Petitioners on this aspect either. As highlighted by the Respondents, the Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project is part and parcel of the larger project, namely, Central Vista Project. The Central Vista Project includes Parliament, refurbishment of North  Block, South Block, construction of new offices of Central Government, i.e. common Central Secretariat, Central Conference facilities etc. The scope and importance of redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue Project have been explained in paragraphs-3 and 4 of the counter affidavit filed by Respondent No. 4, which are reproduced hereunder for ready reference:-
"3. In January 2021, the Work of the Redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue was awarded to SPCPL by Central Public Works Department (hereinafter referred to as "CPWD"). The brief scope of work included the Redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue, Improvement of canals, bridges, lawns lights etc., providing public amenities like toilet blocks, parking, vendor zone, construction of four pedestrian underpasses below Janpath and C-Hexagon road.
4. The said work is to be completed within 10 months i.e., by November 2021. It is pertinent to mention that the work included Redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue where Republic Day Celebrations are held and therefore the timeline of the project is of strict importance as even slightest delay in the project can cause a great hindrance to the Celebrations of Republic day, 2022."
                         While highlighting the indispensable utility of the Central Vista Project, the Bench then minced no words in para 37 to hold that, "The present petition has been filed to stop with immediate effect the work of the redevelopment of Central Vista Avenue. This work is part and parcel of Central Vista Project and of vital public importance. The construction of Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project cannot be seen in isolation. In fact, the whole Central Vista Project is an essential project of National importance, where the sovereign functions of Parliament are also to be conducted.  Public is vitally interested in this project. The legality of the project has been upheld  by Hon'ble Supreme Court vide judgment dated 5th, January 2021 passed in Transferred Case (Civil) No. 229/2020, reported as 2021 SCC Online SC 7. The whole project has been given after notice inviting tender process. As stated in the counter affidavit of Respondent No. 4, they have to complete the work on or before November, 2021 which was assigned to them in January, 2021. Time is of the essence of the contract."
                   Going ahead, the Bench also waxed eloquent to state unequivocally in para 38 that, "The work has to be completed within time-bound schedule. Petitioners have casually argued that the time limit be extended. Such kind of arguments cannot be accepted by this Court, keeping in view that they construction activity of this essential project or of a project of national importance cannot be stopped  especially when the conditions imposed by the order of the DDMA dated 19th April, 2021as  mentioned in paragraph-8 thereof are not flouted or violated. We completely disagree with the learned Senior Counsel appearing for the Petitioners that the project is not an essential activity. The Project in question is of vital importance and essential and has a direct nexus with the main project, namely, Central Vista Project. By no stretch of imagination, it can be said that Central Vista Project (which is the main project) or Central  Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project is not an essential project. The Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project which is a sub-set of the main project is equally important and essential as the main project. If this type of project is stopped by the Court, the main project cannot be completed within the stipulated time. Once the workers are staying at the site and all facilities have been provided by Respondent No. 4, Covid-19 protocols are adhered to and COVID-19 àppropriate behaviour is being followed, there is no reason for this Court while exercising powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India to stop the project."

                          Quite forthrightly, the Bench then held in para 39 that, "We are of the view that this is a motivated petition preferred by the petitioners and not a genuine public interest litigation. In view of the aforesaid, present petition is hereby dismissed with costs of Rs. 1,00,000/- (Rupees One Lakh only) to be deposited by the petitioners with the Delhi State Legal Services Authority within four weeks from today. The aforesaid amount shall be utilized for the programme 'Access to Justice:""
                        In essence, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment by a Division Bench of Delhi High Court comprising of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh thus sets the record straight on Central Vista project which has huge national importance also. We thus see that the Centre's stand on this key issue stands vindicated! Even the Opposition parties have no option but to now respect this laudable, learned and latest judgment by Delhi High Court which has come as a shot in the arm for BJP.
         It merits no reiteration that our Parliament is very old built century ago in 1920 in British era and it has as time progressed become weak and dilapidated in its durability naturally as it has been in existence since more than 100 years. More damningly, its location is vulnerable to earthquakes and the safety of MPs cannot be taken for granted!  The new building is being built manifestly in such a manner that it can withstand a big earthquake  most easily!Also, by 2025 the number of MPs in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha will increase rapidly for which a bigger hall is required and this necessitated the compelling move for creation of  new Parliament! All such factors tilted the scales in favour of Centre and compelled Delhi High Court to not just dismiss petition but also impose a heavy cost also of Rs 1 lakh on all the petitioners as stated initially!
Sanjeev Sirohi

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