The Supreme Court has spoken. The iconic Central Vista project will go ahead, as planned. The challenge mounted by civil society activists, habitual PIL-filers and others was dismissed by the apex court on Tuesday.
The majority judgment, written by Justice A M Khanwilkar for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, did not want to go into the right and wrong of the project, maintaining it wasn’t for the court to do so. “ … the petitioners enthusiastically called upon us to venture into territories that are way beyond the contemplated powers of a constitutional court. 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…”
The salutary self-acknowledgement by the highest court in the land to the limits of its powers of judicial review and scrutiny of government policies and actions comes as a breath of fresh air. Given how over the years the Supreme Court and the High Courts had forayed into the domain of the executive and the legislature, dictating the height of dams or the kind of fuel for public vehicles --- all in the name of public interest --- the apex court found no infirmity in the project.
However, as far as public interest litigation is concerned, Justices Khanwilkar and Maheshwari have drawn a welcome 'Lakshman Rekha', whose breach by the courts would no longer be welcome. The PIL lawyer-entrepreneurs have reason to worry. For every PIL filed for a genuine public cause, there are several more meant to serve the interests of corporations on payment of huge sums of money. In the guise of civil society or a political outfit, professional PIL activists served their own cause.
The abuse of the immensely useful instrumentality of PIL had gone on for so long and had become so pervasive that there were calls for the legislature to intervene. Happily, the self-correction by the SC itself will curb the enthusiasm of courts to entertain PILs filed for the silliest of reasons. That said, the court did not find any infirmity in the approval process for the project. The majority judgment too referred to the challenge in striking a balance between development and environmental concerns as well as the preservation of precious heritage.
Meanwhile, the minority judgment by Justice Sanjiv Khanna did not nix the project per se, but flagged the process wherein government had short-circuited procedures for approval from the heritage conservation committee and had also failed to elicit public/ independent experts’ comment on the proposed redevelopment and changes in the historic central vista. Transparency of the approval process was lacking, according to the minority judgment.
But, as noted above, the implications of the majority judgment go far beyond the go-ahead to the Central Vista project. It virtually emasculates the PIL cottage industry which had sprung up in the apex court and various HCs with entrepreneurs abusing the process and preening themselves to be above the law, threatening, bullying, intimidating sitting and retired judges and chief justices. The attempt to curb the abuse of PILs was long overdue.