The High Court of Karnataka on Wednesday declared that there was no need for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to take prior environmental clearance for widening of national highway-4A from Belagavi in Karnataka to Goa border.
The court, however, said the work of widening can be continued only after the Union government extends the validity of its in-principle approval granted earlier under the Forest Conservation Act or grants a fresh approval as the validity of the approval expired on December 31, 2020. Also, the court held that no material has been placed before it to establish that stretches of NH-4A in Karnataka and Goa have been “artificially divided” to bring length of the highway below 100 km to avoid obtaining of prior environmental clearances under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice S. Vishwajith Shetty passed the order while disposing a PIL petition by film-maker and environmentalist Suresh Heblikar and two others. The court said that it cannot grant the relief sought by the petitioners.
Meanwhile, the Bench directed the Union government to examine whether the project attracts certain prohibition under the EP Act. The Bench also left it open to the Union government to take action under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 while giving liberty to the petitioners to file their representation to the Centre in relation to measures to avoid or minimise adverse impact of the project on biodiversity.
The petition was filed in January 2019 and the High Court in November 2019 restrained the NHAI from continuing the work in view of lack of clarity on whether widening works required environment clearance or not.
The NHAI had told the court that it had not “artificially” divided the project of widening NH-4A as proposal to widen the highway’s stretch in Goa was only at the project report stage where as 70% of the work of widening the highway from Belagavi in Karnataka to Goa border had been already completed. The NHAI had in 2019 told the court that it was not widening the 13.32 km stretch of NH-4A passing through Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary.