A group of former bureaucrats on Tuesday criticised the Centre’s decision to build a new Parliament amid the coronavirus crisis and India’s economic decline, calling it a “pursuit of grandeur”. They hit out at the Narendra Modi government for going ahead with the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista revamp, even as questions concerning its approval were being heard by the Supreme Court.

Sixty-nine former officers, coming together as the Constitutional Conduct Group, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra about the manner in which the Centre was proceeding with the project. The signatories of the letter include human rights activist and former Indian Administrative Service officer Harsh Mander, former Vice Chairman of Delhi Development Authority VS Ailawadi and former Special Secretary in the Research and Analysis Wing Anand Arni, among others.

“It is a matter of great dismay that at a time when we are faced with an economy in perilous decline and a pandemic which has brought untold misery to millions, the government has chosen to invest vast sums on a project which represents nothing but the pursuit of pomp and grandeur,” the signatories said.

They added: “We have a public health infrastructure crying out for investment of public resources that could benefit substantially from the kind of investment planned for the Central Vista project; yet, for the government it seems that this wasteful and unnecessary project must take precedence over social priorities like health and education.”

The former bureaucrats said the since the beginning, the ambitious Central Vista project was marked by “executive highhandedness rarely witnessed before”. “You [the prime minister] are aware that the legality of the various approvals given has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the cases have been heard and reserved for orders on November 7, 2020,” the letter said. “Despite these facts, your government acted as if this were only a minor hindrance and blithely went ahead with implementing the construction plans, starting with removing several trees and planning a major foundation stone laying ceremony.”

The signatories added:

“We believe that this was the height of impropriety when the very basics of the project were under challenge. While the case was sub judice, it was incumbent upon the Government to await its outcome. Was the plan to present a fait accompli that would be difficult to reverse?” 

— The Constitutional Conduct Group

The signatories demanded that the government review the Central Vista project entirely. “We strongly believe that the project should not be implemented, particularly at this time,” they said. “However, even if the government decides to go ahead in principle, the project must be subjected to critical scrutiny by citizens and independent experts, plans must be redrawn to make them compatible with environmental and heritage conservation standards and the due processes of law relating to such projects must be followed.”

On December 10, Modi had laid the foundation stone for the new Parliament building. He said that the new building will be a landmark of India’s democracy.

Congress and other Opposition parties, on the other hand, questioned the timing and need of the building amid the pandemic and the farmers’ protest against the Centre’s three agricultural laws.

Despite the groundbreaking ceremony, the new Parliament will not be built immediately as the government on December 7 assured the Supreme Court that it would not carry out any construction, demolition or felling of trees in the Central Vista area for now. This came after the top court had expressed displeasure at the government “aggressively” continuing with the redevelopment project while petitions challenging the project were yet to be decided.

The government’s Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista project is aimed at making changes to Parliament and the ministries over the course of four years. The project has been criticised for its huge cost. There have also been concerns that it will cause the destruction of national heritage. The Supreme Court, however, is only hearing petitioners and Centre on a limited aspect related to change in land use.

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