MUMBAI – India’s Supreme Court has at least temporarily halted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial drive to build a new parliament house, marking a significant setback to a project that aims to define his legacy as a modernizing nation-builder.
The three-member bench rapped the government’s knuckles for its lack of deference to the court and going ahead with building preparations while the court is still hearing a case on the project’s legality.
The court did not stop Modi from laying a symbolic foundation stone for the project, as he plans to do in a ceremony on Thursday, though it barred his government from any construction, demolition, tree-cutting or any other structural change to the site.
Critics note the planned building for elected representatives, or the need for one, has not been subject to any public consultation, debate or participation.
If the court approves the project, it will mark a fundamental architectural change in the heart of India’s capital, where 93-year-old architecturally unique and magnificent historic buildings serve as parliament.
Rajeev Suri, an advocate and one of the petitioners at the court, raised concerns over changes made to the law regarding the use of land in central Delhi and questioned the validity of such changes. The case is still being heard and no judgment date has been announced.
On March 20, as the nation prepared to lockdown against the pandemic, Modi’s government issued a notification changing the rules for land use in and around the parliament, the President’s Estate, India Gate and the National Archives.
Also affected were two main government buildings, North Block and South Block, and other century-old offices made from solid red stones, broadly described as Central Vista.
“We thought we are dealing with a prudent litigant and that deference will be shown,’’ judges told the Solicitor-General.
“We never thought you will go ahead so aggressively with construction. We don’t mind if you do paperwork, or lay foundation stone but no construction should be done.
“We show deference to you that you will act in a prudent manner,’’ the judges said, according to the Bar & Bench law website.
“Same deference should be shown to the court. There should be no construction or demolition. Just because there is no stay it does not mean that you can go head-on with everything.’’
The top government lawyer apologized to the court and said there would be no physical change except for the foundation stone.
India’s existing Parliament House, called Sansad Bhavan, was originally built as the Imperial Legislative Council in 1927 by architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker over six years. Most regal parts of the planned New Delhi area are often called Lutyens’s Delhi.
At the end of British rule in 1947, the Parliament was the venue for the Constituent Assembly, which debated in detail before finalizing and compiling the Constitution of India.
Since January 26, 1950, when India formally became a republic, the Rajya Sabha (upper house) with total 245 members and Lok Sabha (lower house) with 545 members have functioned from there.
The magnificent circular building with 144 pillars was inspired by an 11th century Shiv temple in Morena near Gwalior in central India, which was lost under forest cover for centuries before being re-discovered. The temple was circular with 100-odd pillars.
The new 6,000 square meters triangular building would have the parliament with space for more members, besides residences for the prime minister and vice-president, as part of the complex. The Presidential Estate with its 340 rooms remains at its existing location.
An attack by Pakistan-trained terrorists on the Parliament on December 13, 2001, and later talk of a lack of space triggered a discussion on the need for a new building and better security and technology but no committee was formed and nothing was decided.
There was also talk of India’s ever-increasing population and the need for more elected members. There’s been no public debate on this either. Pictures show Sansad Bhavan co-existing with the new well-lighted building but there is no clarity on its future.
Not everyone is excited about the new building, with many town planners and architects firmly against the plan.
One former senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made caustic remarks as he commented on Modi’s penchant for inaugurating roads, bridges and tunnels.
Yashwant Sinha, a former minister in-charge of key finance and foreign affairs, said someone should stop forcibly changing the face of Delhi.
Sinha left the BJP because he disagreed with Modi’s manner of running the government and the country.
“The plan has nothing to do with the needs of people or Parliament. It only shows the hunger of one man to perpetuate himself in history,’’ Sinha said.