SC halts 90-acre project in Kumaon Himalayas on a plea challenging ‘single window’ clearances

Bench’s order comes at a time when Uttarakhand is gasping from the after-effects of killer forest blazes and denuded green cover

Updated - May 21, 2024 11:01 pm IST

Published - May 21, 2024 10:53 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

 A view of Supreme Court of India, in New Delhi.

A view of Supreme Court of India, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Supreme Court has served a blow to “single window” clearances, meant to hasten infrastructural development, in the ecologically fragile and seismic-prone lower Himalayan ranges by temporarily staying the construction of a 90-acre hotel and township project in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand.

A Bench of Justices A.S. Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan has passed the interim order at a time when Uttarakhand is gasping from the after-effects of killer forest blazes and denuded green cover.

The stay was based on a special leave petition filed by a landowner, Birendra Singh, represented by senior advocate P.B. Suresh and advocates Vipin Nair and Karthik Jayashankar, raising a substantial question of law whether “single window” clearances could replace prior environmental clearances and the system of submission of sanctioned building plans, which were mandatory before commencement of huge constructions such as hotel projects in ecologically fragile Uttarakhand.

“Whether these precautionary steps to protect a fragile eco-zone can be easily dispensed with on the ground that a single window clearance has been obtained, more so, for a project situated in an ecologically fragile and sensitive seismic zone of the Kumaon Himalayas at an elevation of more than 6,700 feet above mean sea level (MSL)?” the petitioner asked the apex court.

The petition sought a bar on the commencement of commercial projects in the State without the requisite permission under law and comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).

Justice Oka’s Bench has listed the case for August 12. The respondents were represented by a legal team led by senior advocates C.U. Singh and Aryama Sundaram.

EIA notification

The petitioner referred to an EIA notification of September 14, 2006, which clearly stated that “prior environmental clearance is required before any construction work starts as opposed to an ex-post facto approval”.

“Ex-post facto approval tantamounts to a fait accompli and has to be strongly deprecated as it causes ecological disasters,” the petitioner argued.

The petition had assailed an Uttarakhand High Court decision on April 9, allowing the construction for the hotel project to continue. Incidentally, the petitioner wondered how the April 9, 2024 High Court order had elaborately referred to its subsequent order in another public interest litigation (PIL) plea on April 23, 2024 for its reasonings.

“The High Court had permitted a huge hotel and resort project in an ecologically sensitive forest area at a height of 6,500-7,000 feet above MSL on the mere undertaking of the project proponents that they will not construct more than 20,000 sq.m,” the petition noted.

It said the April 9 order of the High Court had ignored several red flags raised by its own Court Commissioner and former Indian Forest Service Officer D.K. Sharma, including that the project was located in an erosion-prone area.

Mr. Singh argued that the High Court should first render its judgment on the definition of ‘forest’ as applicable to Uttarakhand before passing orders allowing constructions in areas which squarely fall within the definitions of “forest” and “forest land” as contained in Sections 38A(b) and (c), respectively, of the Indian Forest Act, 1927.

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