India’s supreme court has given approval for a new parliament building that critics have called an “expensive vanity project” for the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Under the $3bn development project, Delhi’s iconic central vista at the heart of the capital, home to its parliament and the famous India Gate monument, will be transformed by a new triangular parliament building, government and legislature offices and a new home for the prime minister.
Since the project was announced, it has faced criticism from civil society groups, environmentalists and politicians about its lack of transparency and public consultation and high cost in a time of economic crisis.
The government plans to have the new parliament building ready by India’s 75th Independence Day in August 2022, but was forced to halt construction in December after a legal challenge in India’s highest court over allegations it had violated environmental and land use laws. The vista is the only area in India designated Grade I heritage status.
On Tuesday the supreme court voted in favour of the project by 2:1. The dissenting judge had expressed concern about the lack of public consultation for the new parliament complex.
After the ruling, Randeep Singh Surjewala, a spokesperson from the opposition Indian National Congress party, said the central vista project was a case of “misplaced priorities of a whimsical autocrat seeking to etch his name in the annals of history with cement and mortar”.
The current parliament, designed for the British Raj by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in 1912, was opened in 1927 and repurposed after independence to become the seat of democracy in India. According to the government it is no longer fit for purpose, and the construction of a larger, modern parliament building is necessary.
Critics have asked why the current building can not be upgraded and questioned the decision to spent hundreds of billions of rupees on a new building while India was facing an economic crisis because of Covid, with a slump in wages, the highest unemployment in 45 years and its first recession.
In May, 60 former civil servants wrote to Modi and the urban affairs minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, to condemn the central vista project as an “irresponsible move at a time when enormous funds are required to strengthen the public health system”.
Modi laid the foundation stone for the new parliament building at a ceremony in December, calling it “a landmark of India’s democracy.” He said: “If the old parliament building gave direction to India after independence, the new building would be a witness to the making of an Aatmanirbhar Bharat [self-reliant India].”