The Madras High Court on Monday quashed the land acquisition proceedings initiated by the Centre as well as the State Government for the ambitious ₹10,000 crore Chennai-Salem eight-lane greenfield expressway project proposed on a stretch of 277 km passing through agricultural as well as reserve forest land.
A Division Bench of Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan quashed the proceedings after holding that environmental clearance was mandatory since the project would have an adverse impact on the environment, including waterbodies, and that a project report submitted by a consultant was not satisfactory.
The judgement was delivered on a batch of cases filed by advocates, farmers and politicians. Prominent among the petitioners was Member of Parliament Anbumani Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which has now aligned with the BJP-AIADMK in the Lok Sabha election.
The marathon hearing on the cases had taken place from June to December, when the Division Bench reserved its verdict, and several interim orders were passed. The court restrained the government from forcibly dispossessing the land owners from their properties and not to use police force against the protesters.
Centre defends project
The Centre, however, defended the project by stating that the expressway would actually help in preventing release of around 17 crore kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to the effect achieved through a 38,000 ha forest area with 75 lakh trees.
In a counter-affidavit filed in response to public interest litigation petitions filed by advocate A.P. Suryaprakasam and two others, the Centre said the reduction of carbon dioxide could be achieved by reducing diesel consumption by 10 crore litres per annum. It went on to state that the consumption of diesel would come down considerably because of shortening of travelling distance between Chennai and Salem by 57 km to 75 km.
Amit Kumar Ghosh, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, who filed the counter-affidavit, said the expressway was part of the Centre’s major road programme known as Bharatmala Pariyojana-I, entailing the construction of about 35,000 km of national highways across the country at an estimated cost of ₹5,35,000 crore before 2022. The programme was aimed at decongesting six national corridors.
According to the official, resorting to brownfield development and widening the existing national highways would be more damaging to the environment than greenfield alignment, because it [brownfield development] would require felling of trees apart from demolishing structures that had come up on both sides of the highways due to urbanisation. He said brownfield development was not resorted to because of ground constraints as well as associated financial and environmental costs.
The two existing highways between Chennai and Salem are 334 km and 353 km long and the proposed expressway would reduce the distance to just 277 km.
'No need to get prior environmental clearance'
The court was also told that there was no need to obtain prior environmental clearance for the project from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, before issuing preliminary land acquisition notifications under Section 3A(1) of the National Highways Act of 1956. “The authority empowered to undertake environment appraisal and clearance cannot do so unless it is made aware of the alignment as borne out from the preliminary land acquisition notifications in this behalf. Further, the land acquisition per se has no impact on the environment impact assessment... These are two altogether different activities and not inter-dependant,” the Centre said. It added that works were being carried out simultaneously to reduce time.
Mr. Ghosh conceded that 9.95 km of reserved forest area had to be acquired for the expressway. “It may kindly be appreciated that such kind of forest stretches are unavoidable in long linear projects and the authorities have taken due care to keep the impact to the barest minimum while finalizing the alignment,” he said, adding that due care would be taken to preserve the waterbodies en route by desilting and deepening them.