Central Vista now a ‘central fortress of death’, petitioners tell Delhi HC; court reserves judgment

The petitioners seek a stay on construction activities of Central Vista due to the COVID-19 situation in the national capital and threat posed by the construction work as a potential super spreader
Central Vista New Parliament Building
Central Vista New Parliament Building

The Delhi High Court on Monday reserved its judgment on plea to halt the construction of Central Vista redevelopment project in view of COVID-19 pandemic.

The matter was heard by a Bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh.

Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra appeared for the petitioner while Solicitor General Tushar Mehta represented the Central government. Senior Advocate Maninder Singh appeared for the builder, Shapoorji Pallonji.

Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra, representing the petitioners, submitted on Monday that the issue is how the construction activities came to be classified as essential services at a time when a curfew was in force in Delhi due to COVID-19.

“There was a curfew imposed and everything had to be closed. Suddenly we find very fascinating thing, a letter is written seeking permission be granted to Shapoorji Pallonji in view of stringent timeline of work,” Luthra said.

That is how movement passes came to be issued for labourers involved in the construction work, he added, as per a Bar & Bench report.

Luthra said that the petition was filed because “we were afraid that their dereliction was going to lead to an Auschwitz on the gardens of Delhi.”

He also disputed the claims of the government that the work site has all COVID-19 facilities and maintenance of COVID protocol. He said, “Union of India has resorted to falsehoods, suppression of material facts…There is no bed, there is no bedding. My lords will see empty tents on April 24. And they expect your lordships to believe this?”

“They accept that it is a limited challenge but choose to attack the messenger and the message is health, life, and safety, not only ours or theirs but that of everybody,” Luthra submitted.

“What does a citizen expect? Openness and honesty. What do they get? They shout it down … Central Vista should no longer be called “Central Vista”, it should now be called the Central fortress of death,” he added.

Luthra also pointed out that there are notices barring videography and photography at the site.

Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta described the PIL as a “facade to disguise something they always wanted to stop under one pretext or the other.”

Mehta also claimed that contrary to the claims of the petitioner, there is a medical facility at the site and that workers will have access to such medical facility.

Mehta also objected to Luthra likening the project to Auschwitz concentration camp in Europe. “Everyone has right to criticise and be venemous but court cannot be a platform to use terms like Auschwitz. It was a concentration camp and such expressions are being used on this august platform,” Mehta said.

“You may express your opinion but please do not come to court to stall such projects,” Mehta added, stating that it is an abuse of court’s jurisdiction.

Maninder Singh echoed the Solicitor General’s stance that the plea was not bonafide.

“They are sensationalising by saying ‘this (Central Vista) has become Corona hub and people are dying’. Once petitioner came to know the workers are staying on site and not being transported, they should have withdrawn the petition, but they have not,” Singh argued.

We have followed all COVID appropriate behaviour and this petition is not maintainable, he added.

The court after hearing the parties reserved its judgment.

The redevelopment project in the Central Vista area of Lutyens Delhi envisages a new Parliament House, a new residential complex that will house the Prime Minister and the Vice-President, as well as several new office buildings and a Central Secretariat to accommodate Ministry offices.

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court had, on January 5, given its green signal to the project, rejecting a batch of petitions challenging the scheme for alleged violation of land use and environmental norms.

The petitioners in the instant case, Anya Malhotra and Sohail Hashmi, had sought a stay on the construction activities of Central Vista due to the COVID-19 situation in the national capital and the threat posed by the construction work as a potential super spreader.

The petitioners submitted that they do not intend to overreach the Supreme Court judgment of January 5 which had allowed the project.

They said that they are merely seeking a temporary halt on the construction work on account of the present public health crisis in the national capital.

The plea contended that there was no rationale for classifying the Central Vista Project as an “essential service”, merely because some executive mandated contractual deadline was ostensibly required to be met.

The Central government opposed the plea, contending that the construction activities currently ongoing in and around Rajpath and India Gate do not pertain to the new Parliament building or new offices for the Central government.

Instead, the current construction is with respect to public spaces visited by people and tourists at Raj Path and includes building public amenities like new toilet blocks, parking spaces, pedestrian underpasses below the C-Hexagon etc.

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