Supreme Court expresses dismay over pleas urging it to impede development work by government

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court Tuesday expressed dismay over “enthusiastic pleas” saying that although courts are “repositories of immense public trust”, they cannot be called upon to “govern” and become an impediment in development work of the state.

The observations were made by the top court in its majority judgement giving green signal to the Centre’s ambitious Central Vista Project, covering a 3-km stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in Lutyens’ Delhi.

A 3-judge bench headed by Justice A M Khanwilkar, by 2:1 majority, said that in recent times, the PILs are being “increasingly invoked” to urge the court to examine pure concerns of policy and sorts of generalised grievances against the system.

“No doubt, the Courts are repositories of immense public trust and the fact that some public interest actions have generated commendable results is noteworthy, but it is equally important to realise that Courts operate within the boundaries defined by the Constitution.

“We cannot be called upon to govern. For, we have no wherewithal or prowess and expertise in that regard,” said Justice Khanwilkar, writing the judgement for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari.

In the 432-page verdict, Justice Khanwilkar said the role of court is limited to examine the constitutionality of policy decisions and actions of the government.

“The right to development, as discussed…is a basic human right and no organ of the State is expected to become an impediment in the process of development as long as the government proceeds in accordance with law,” it said.

The bench, in its majority verdict, wondered whether, in the absence of legal mandate, it can dictate the government to desist from spending money on one project and instead use it for something else.

“We are equally compelled to wonder if we can jump to put a full stop on execution of policy matters in the first instance without a demonstration of irreparable loss or urgent necessity, or if we can guide the government on moral or ethical matters without any legal basis.

“In light of the settled law, we should be loath to venture into these areas. We need to say this because in recent past, the route of public/social interest litigation is being increasingly invoked to call upon the Court to examine pure concerns of policy and sorts of generalised grievances against the system,” it said.

The constitutionally envisaged system of “checks and balances” has been completely misconstrued and misapplied, it said.

“The principle of ‘checks and balances’ posits two concepts – ‘check’ and ‘balance’. Whereas the former finds a manifestation in the concept of judicial review, the latter is derived from the well enshrined principle of separation of powers. The political issues including regarding development policies of the Government of the day must be debated in the Parliament, to which it is accountable,” it said.

The majority verdict also held that the public trust doctrine has not been violated by the authorities in granting approvals to the project.

“The project does not involve any conversion into private ownership and has no element whatsoever of permitting commercial use of vital public resources. The proposed project is in line with the standards of public trust and the petitioners have failed to point out any circumstance which would suggest otherwise,” it held.

It said that the petitioners failed to establish that public resources are being squandered and used in a manner which cannot be termed as beneficial public use.

Referring to the letters of Lok Sabha speakers, Sumitra Mahajan and Om Birla, and other documents, it rejected the vehement plea that papers were not placed in public domain.  

“Evidently, all relevant documents from the stage of expression of need for the project by Speaker of Lok Sabha to appointment of consultant, issuance of public notice, conduct of public hearing, final notification for change in land use and minutes of meetings of CVC, DUAC and EAC were placed in public domain. The petitioners have not pointed out a single document which formed a part of the process and was not placed in public domain,” it said.