[NOTE: This Report highlights the important observations made by Justice AM Khaniwlkar while writing the majority opinion in the Central Vista Project case, for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari. Justice Sanjiv Khanna has given the dissenting opinion in the case]
Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of AM Khanwilkar*, Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna**, JJ has, by a 2:1 verdict, has given a go ahead to the Central Vista Project. As per the Government, the Project, which plans to build a New Parliament building, is necessary for the creation of a larger working space for efficient functioning of the Parliament and for integrated administrative block for Ministries/Departments presently spread out at different locations including on rental basis.
“We are compelled to wonder if we, in the absence of a legal mandate, can dictate the government to desist from spending money on one project and instead use it for something else, or if we can ask the government to run their offices only from areas decided by this Court, or if we can question the wisdom of the government in focusing on a particular direction of development. We are equally compelled to wonder if we can jump to put a full stop on execution of policy matters in the first instance without a demonstration of irreparable loss or urgent necessity, or if we can guide the government on moral or ethical matters without any legal basis. In light of the settled law, we should be loath to venture into these areas.”
Here are the key highlights from the majority opinion:
DENIAL OF NATURAL JUSTICE
The petitioners have not been able to demonstrate any case of denial of natural justice. For, the prescribed procedure, both by statute and convention, seems to have substantially been followed. In fact, in circumstances when challenge is raised to a project of immense national importance which is not limited to any particular city or state or intended to give benefit to any private individual, impediments cannot be induced by reading in requirements which are not mandated by law.
“The principle of “Rule of Law” requires rule in accordance with the law as it is, and not in accordance with an individual’s subjective understanding of law. Substantial justice is the core of any such inquiry and it is in this direction that processes are to be understood and adjudicated upon. The Court needs to be conscious of all aspects in a non-adversarial public interest litigation where public interest is the sole premise of enquiry.”
It is no doubt true that the classification of legislative or administrative functions can no more be done like a pigeon-holes classification. It was because of this reason that the phrases “quasi-legislative” and “quasi-administrative” have made inroads in the modern administrative law. In fact, in practical parlance, even quasi-legislative functions are treated as falling under the wider ambit of administrative functions.
In the present case, what is being modified is the master/zonal plan already in existence. True that is not an action that creates new zones or new parameters. However, the underlying nature of activity being performed here is of town planning and change in land use of one or couple of plots in a given zone. It is a modification which will provide direction to all future development of the subject plots.
“… there is a distinction between modifying the use of land in a given zone and demarcating fresh boundaries for various zones of land. The change of usage of Government land is of a general nature. It is certainly not a purely routine administrative work. That means that the function of change in land use has a quasi-legislative hue to it.”
EFFECT OF SOME MEMBERS NOT JOINING THE MEETING
The notice of meeting was communicated to all the members on 16.4.2020 and they were asked to make the requisite arrangements in advance. Furthermore, the members who lacked in technical know-how to interact virtually were given the option of necessary assistance for the purpose of meeting. In such a scenario, it is inconceivable to say that the members were deliberately kept out of the meeting.
“If they failed to join the meeting for reasons best known to them, the outcome of the meeting cannot be assailed by alleging motives. Further, the minutes of meeting were mailed to all the members on 30.4.2020 and even then, no word of discord or dissatisfaction was received from any of these members. It must follow that their absence cannot be equated to an irregularity, much less an illegality. The Committee was not expected to sit over the proposal merely because some members were unwilling to join virtually despite all arrangements being in place. Indisputably, none of the absent members is before us in this case and we have no occasion whatsoever to consider them as being aggrieved in any manner, for no grievance at their instance has come on record.”
NON-APPLICATION OF MIND
“When petitioners allege illegality on a ground such as absence of reasons in a pure administrative process, they must bear the burden to demonstrate the requirement of reasons in the first place. It is not as if reasons are mandatory in all decisions.”
In cases when the statute itself provides for an express requirement of a reasoned order, it is understandable that absence of reasons would be a violation of a legal requirement and thus, illegal. However, in cases when there is no express requirement of reasons, the ulterior effect of absence of reasons on the final decision cannot be sealed in a straightjacketed manner. Such cases need to be examined from a broad perspective in the light of overall circumstances.
In cases where individual rights are affected by the decision, an opportunity of being heard and application of mind couched in the form of reasons form part of the jurisprudential doctrine. Such cases need to be distinguished from cases which do not impinge upon individual rights and involve ordinary administrative processes. For, similar standards cannot be deployed to decide both these cases.
“What we are dealing with is the opinion of an advisory (administrative) body which is appointed by the same Government which calls for its advice and not to adjudicate upon rights of individuals. Even if we assume that the no objection by an advisory body would have the effect of affecting the objectivity of the final decision, the fact remains that it does not take the final decision. It is meant to invoke its expertise in light of the subject proposal placed before it and advise the Government as regards the feasibility of the proposed development in connection with the existing central vista region. The final decision would be that of the competent authority of the concerned department.”
Not being a statutory body, an advisory body’s opinion has no finality attached to it nor could be appealed against to superior forum.
“Undeniably, in the process of decision-making, the Government may choose to consult as many bodies and agencies as it desires and opinion of every such advisory body cannot be assailed by supplying fictional standards without keeping in view the nature of body and context of advice.”
The DUAC was sitting in an advisory capacity so as to advise the Government on aesthetics of a development/re-development project. It is not meant to analyse any other aspect of the project. In that, it is expected to apply its mind to those aspects of the project which may have a bearing on aesthetics. The Minutes succinctly reveal that complete information relating to designs was placed before the DUAC and it applied itself on an array of factors including parking, plantation of trees, traffic, appearance of facade, ventilation, landscape, building equipment etc. so far as the same are relevant for its enquiry, to fulfil its advisory duties.
“…the allegation of arbitrariness is easy to raise in a theoretical discourse, but hard to establish in a Court of law where unsubstantiated considerations have no place.”
Legitimate expectations may arise in cases when the decision-making body deviates from a set standard, thereby impinging upon the rights of those who are subjected to the decision.
“In the present case, had the project proponent entirely skipped the step of consultation with CVC, enforcing such consultation by operation of legitimate expectation may have come into play.”
Once an expert committee has duly applied its mind to an application for EC, any challenge to its decision has to be based on concrete material which reveals total absence of mind. Absent that material, due deference must be shown to the decisions of experts.
“The facts of the case do not reveal any deliberate concealment of fact/information from the EAC or supply of any misinformation.”
TIMELINE OF THE PROJECT
Once the project proponent frames a conscious timeline of completion of various projects which broadly fall under the umbrella of a common vision for the region, the same cannot be disturbed on the notion that the whole vision should go through the regulatory compliances at once. That would defeat the whole purpose of advance planning of a development activity. Planning involves in-depth consideration of a wide range of concerns including regulatory requirements. The decision to attribute different timelines and purposes to different projects is a domain of planning and the Court cannot readily attribute the label of mala fides to such informed decision until and unless there is a clear attempt to evade the requirements of law.
SELECTION/APPOINTMENT OF CONSULTANT
In this case, the process of tender was used to select the consultant wherein uniform conditions were prescribed for all the participants who were eligible and free to participate in the process. Upon submission of bids, their applications were analysed on pre-determined set of objective parameters which were duly notified to all the participants beforehand. The petitioners have not shown that the conditions of tender were deliberately crafted in a manner to make them suitable for a particular participant. Nor, have they shown that the conditions were violative of any mandatory requirement.
“Just because the Government has followed a particular method of selection/appointment of the Consultant for the stated project and another one would have been a better option cannot be the basis to quash the appointment already made after following a fair procedure consequent to inviting tenders from eligible persons similarly placed.”
PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE
“For proving a violation of public trust, it falls upon the petitioners to establish that public resources are being squandered and used or planned to be used in a manner which cannot be termed as beneficial public use. As for the respondents, it falls upon them to establish that the proposed use of public resources is aligned in the direction of beneficial use and in public interest.”
In the present case, the respondents have elaborately demonstrated the imminent need for the project. Also, the change in land use does not result into any deprivation of recreational spaces. On the contrary, the changes would result into optimisation and greater access to open spaces including entail in assets creation.
AVAILABILITY OF INFORMATION IN PUBLIC DOMAIN
Evidently, all relevant documents from the stage of expression of need for the project by Speaker of Lok Sabha to appointment of consultant, issuance of public notice, conduct of public hearing, final notification for change in land use and minutes of meetings of CVC, DUAC and EAC were placed in public domain. The petitioners have not pointed out a single document which formed a part of the process and was not placed in public domain.
“Be that as it may, it is also relevant to note that mere absence of information does not vitiate an administrative process, that too in toto.”
The real effect of absence of information in public domain has to be tested on the anvil of actual prejudice on public’s ability to participate in the decision-making process, wherever provided for. It must result into a denial of legally enforceable right. In the present case, none of the persons who participated in raising objections to change in land use or those who sent representations to DUAC and EAC have come forward to contend that they could not access information, thereby rendering them incapable of participating in the process or in raising informed objections.
(i) There is no infirmity in the grant of:
(a) “No Objection” by the Central Vista Committee (CVC);
(b) “Approval” by the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) as per the DUAC Act, 1973; and
(c) “Prior approval” by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) under clause 1.12 of the Building Byelaws for Delhi, 2016.
(ii) the exercise of power by the Central Government under Section 11A (2) of the DDA Act, 1957 is just and proper.
(iii) The recommendation of Environmental Clearance (EC) by Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) and grant thereof by MoEF is just, proper and in accordance with law including the 2006 Notification.
(iv) The project proponent may set up smog tower(s) of adequate capacity, as being integral part of the new Parliament building project; and additionally, use smog guns at the construction site throughout the construction phase is in progress on the site.
(v) MoEF to consider issuing similar general directions regarding installation of adequate capacity of smog tower(s) as integral part in all future major development projects whilst granting development permissions, particularly in cities with bad track record of air quality – be it relating to Government buildings, townships or other private projects of similar scale and magnitude, including to use smog guns during the construction activity of the Project is in progress.
(vi) The stage of prior permission under clause 1.3 of the Building Bye Laws of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC), is the stage of actual development/redevelopment etc. work is to commence and not the incipient stage of planning and formalisation of the Project. Accordingly, the DDA shall obtain aforementioned prior permission of the designated Authority before actually starting any development/redevelopment work on the stated plots/structures/precincts governed by the heritage laws including on plot No. 118, if already not obtained.
(vii) The selection/appointment of Consultant, in light of the limited examination warranted in this case, is held to be just and proper.
[Rajiv SUri v. Delhi Development Authority, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 7, decided on 05.01.2020]
*Justice AM Khanwilkar has penned the majority opinion