The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the green signal for the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and the Union government to acquire land for the construction of a 277.3 km-long Chennai-Krishnagiri-Salem national highway project worth over ₹10,000 crore, saying “national highways are the arteries of India’s economy”.
The eight-lane highway (NH179A and NH179B) is a part of the first phase of the ‘Bharatmala Pariyojna’ project, which stretches across 24,800 km and has an estimated outlay of ₹5.35 lakh crore, to improve the efficiency of freight and passenger movement across the country by bridging critical infrastructure gaps.
“By its very nomenclature, a national highway is to link the entire country and provide access to all in every remote corner of the country for interaction and to promote commerce and trade, employment and education, including health related services. This approach enhances and furthers the federal structure. The existence of a national highway in the neighbourhood paves the way for the fulfilment of aspirations of the locals and their empowerment,” a three-judge Bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar observed in a 140-page judgment.
To cut travel time
The highway intends to cut travel time between Chennai and Salem by half. However, the project faced opposition from locals, including farmers, over fears of losing their land, besides environmentalists, who were against felling of trees. The project runs through reserve forest and water bodies.
But the court said the highway project is “dedicated for the ordinary and reasonable user of the road as a national highway from one designated town [Chennai] up to another town [Salem]”. It would be open for affected persons to approach the appropriate forum on the correctness or validity of the environment clearances, the judgment said.
Justice Khanwilkar, who authored the judgment, said the Madras High Court had been wrong to quash the acquisition proceedings on the ground that no prior environmental clearance was taken.
The apex court said it was too premature to have got such clearances. The government was not required by law to get them as it had, at the time, only expressed an “intention” to acquire certain land under Section 3A of the National Highway Act. It had also merely notified a certain stretch or a section of area to be a ‘national highway’ under Section 2(2) of the Act. No land had been vested with the NHAI.
“Prior environmental clearance under the Environment [Protection] Act and Rules of 1986 is required to be taken before commencement of the “actual construction or building work” of the national highway by the executing agency [NHAI]. That will happen only after the acquisition proceedings are taken to its logical end until the land finally vests in the NHAI or is entrusted to it by the Central Government for building/management of the national highway,” the Supreme Court held.
It asked how it was possible to get environmental clearance before even identifying the exact site for the highway.
However, the court agreed with the High Court that neither the government nor the NHAI had any business altering the mutation entries of specified lands in their favour, that too, even before they had come into possession of these properties. The court upheld the High Court decision to restore the earlier entries in the revenue records.
Justice Khanwilkar rejected arguments made by petitioners that the Centre and the NHAI do not have the power to pick green areas in a State and acquire them for a highway. According to the petitioners, the Centre’s power was limited to designating an existing road as a ‘national highway’.
A piquant situation
But Justice Khanwilkar said the petitioners’ contentions raised a piquant situation. What if a State government flounders or is in some way unable to construct a road in a remote area within its jurisdiction? Would the locals have to suffer perpetually? Justice Khanwilkar said it would be for the Centre to step in and construct a national highway to connect the local people to the rest of the country.
“The Central government is free to construct/build a new national highway through any part of a State in order to empower the people… It is imperative to provide a road/highway to assuage the perennial difficulties faced by the locals in that belt due to lack of access,” the court reasoned.
On complaints about “alterations” in the highway route, the court said changes to the extent of 15% was permissible in a project of such a macro scale. The project gives the Centre “discretion” to “substitute/replace up to 15% length of 24800 km”. Unforeseen concerns like land availability factors related to congestion, reduction of distance, operational efficiency attract such alteration, the court explained.