By Kanchi Kohli, Manju Menon*
On April 22, 2020, an expert appraisal committee (EAC) of the Environment Ministry recommended an environment clearance for the construction of a brand new Parliament. The EAC’s decision leaves several questions unanswered, foremost being the urgency to pursue this Rs 922 crore project when India is in the grip of a public health emergency, economic collapse and humanitarian crisis. There are legal environmental and procedural holes in this decision. The EAC’s recommendation now awaits an “approval of competent authority”. Here is why the Environment Minister should not sign off on it.
Not a stand-alone project
The Parliament forms part of Central Vista precinct i.e. the area between Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate in New Delhi. In October 2019, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) awarded a consultancy to HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd. The consultancy package includes designing a plan for the redevelopment of the Parliament building, Common Central Secretariat and the Central Vista. All these projects are to be executed by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD).
On March 20 this year, the MoHUA along with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) amended the Delhi Master Plan and notified the change of land use of seven plots for the Central Vista redevelopment. The DDA notification includes plot no. 118, the site of the newly proposed parliament.
However the CPWD’s application to the Environment Ministry presents the new Parliament construction as a stand-alone project and officially denies the existence of any “interlinked projects.” The submissions to the EAC prepared by Kadam Environmental Consultants repeatedly delinks the larger Central Vista redevelopment project and the proposal for the Parliament building.
The documents with the application for environment clearance also claim that there are no “consequential developments” related to the project. The approval process seeks this information to help EACs ascertain if an activity has the potential for creating “cumulative impacts with other existing or planned activities in the locality.” When the project was appraised neither did the CPWD disclose its full plans and nor did the EAC press an enquiry. As a result, only the new Parliament’s environmental impacts have been assessed even though this project component is only one part of the Central Vista redevelopment.
Not an expansion project
The CPWD has called its proposal an “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Parliament Building, New Delhi”, and has repeatedly argued that the proposed construction is a mere extension of the existing Parliament. But it is clear from the conceptual plan and other data submitted, that the project undertakes fresh construction of 65,000 sq. m. on a distinct and separate plot of 10.5 acres. This new construction includes amongst other things “halls for Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Joint Sessions with lounges and ancillary facilities and “Magnificently sky-lit foyer with a cafeteria at lower level”. Plot 118, where the new construction is proposed, was until two months ago, a designated “district park”. It was being used as a restricted area with a security post and car park for the Parliament..The construction of this structure cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be understood as a mere expansion project.
The 93 year old heritage building of the current Parliament stands at 44,940 sqm over 10.75 acres in the adjacent plot. Taken together, the built-up area of the old and new structures will be 1,09,940 sqm spread over approximately 21.25 acres covering two separate plots. Both the renovation of the existing Parliament and the new construction will have cumulative environmental footprint and impacts. None of these are articulated or assessed.
Not minor and incremental
A prior environmental approval is mandatory for all building, construction and area development projects. Projects of the size of the proposed Parliament already enjoy lenient procedures. They can be approved without a full impact assessment or a public hearing. This has allowed CPWD and its EIA consultants to argue that the impact of the project is minor and incremental, even without carrying out an environment impact assessment.
Calling the project a stand-alone, expansion project has also allowed CPWD to restrict its environment impact zone only to the area immediately around the two plots of 21.25 acres. The EIA consultants claim that there are no ecologically sensitive areas, protected areas or inter-state boundaries within the five kilometer radius of this project. The ecological impact, according to them, is restricted to 333 trees on plot 118, most of which are marked for transplantation. They add that biodiversity loss, i.e. tree canopies, habitats for birds, butterflies and other species and ground water recharge will be affected only temporarily.
The Environment Ministry’s EIA Guidance Manual for Building, Construction, Townships and Area Development Projects states that the project proponent has to submit: “A map covering aerial distance of 15 kms from the boundary of the proposed project area delineating environmental sensitive areas.”. This needs to include “ details of environmental sensitive areas present within a radial distance of 1 Km from the project boundary.”
These details are entirely dependent on how the “project area” is defined. In one of the earliest versions of the design submitted by M/s HCP the project area covered only the Central Vista. But in the subsequent version presented to the Honorable Supreme Court in the matter of the contested CLU notification, the project area has increased from 2.9 km to 6.3 kms. This expanded project zone has a “ridge to river” orientation and extends all the way to the Yamuna western riverbank. The project design involves the transformation of 25 acres of the riverbank into a “riverfront” with a “New India Garden”.
The above three aspects make the information collated and submitted by the CPWD and its consultants, and the appraisal done by the EAC, highly questionable on legal and environmental grounds. Therefore, the Environment Ministry should set aside the EAC recommendation for environment approval to construct the new Parliament. More importantly, the Ministry should act responsibly and avert this expenditure on the Indian public at this time of economic uncertainty.
*Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are with the Centre for Policy Research. A version of this article was first appeared in The News Minute