Sustainable economic growth involves a balance between environmental security and developmental progress. To this effect, the government has from time to time introduced various laws, rules, notifications, and guidelines so that the infrastructure projects are ecologically feasible, environmentally sound and boost the economy without compromising the environmental balance. Recently, the Supreme Court of India in its judgment titled The National Highways Authority of India Vs. Pandarinathan Govindarajulu & Anr.1 examined an appeal with respect to environmental clearance for expansion of National Highway 45-A between Villuppuram to Nagapattinam in the state of Tamil Nadu. The judgment was delivered by a three-judge bench of Justice L. Nageswara Rao, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Ajay Rastogi, where the bench directed NHAI to adhere to the notifications with respect to land acquisition, and consequently allowed the appeal in light of the observations discussed herein below.
The project under consideration was expansion of NH- 45 between Villuppuram to Nagapattinam in the state of Tamil Nadu for a distance of 179.555 Km. as part of the Bharatmala Pariyojana Project (hereinafter referred to as Project). The Project was divided into four different packages and the competent authority for land acquisition granted approval in March 2018 for the widening and improvement works. Accordingly, agreements were entered into with different concessionaires and the land acquisition process was initiated. However, writ petitions were filed before the High Court of Madras by some aggrieved farmers and public interest litigants challenging the commencement of the projects without obtaining proper environmental clearance. The High Court allowed the writ petitions and directed NHAI to undertake Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study and obtain environmental clearances. The same was challenged by NHAI in the present appeal. In the counter affidavit before the High Court, NHAI had stated that environmental clearance was not required as the additional right of way or land acquisition was not greater than the statutory limits.
LEGAL PROVISIONS INVOLVED
With respect to obtaining environmental clearances, Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (Act) empowers the Central Government to take all such measures to protect and improve the quality of the environment and prevent pollution. Specifically, Section 3(2)(v) of the Act empowers restriction of areas in which any industries, operations or processes or class of industries, operations or processes shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards. Further, under Rule 5 of the Environmental (Protection) Rules, 1986 (Rules), the Central Government can restrict or prohibit the location of industries and carrying on of processes in different areas. Thus, the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India, under Section 3(2) (v) (1) of the Act read with Rule 5 (3) (b) of the Rules issued a notification on 14.09.2006 (as amended by the notification dated 22.08.2013) (Notification) directing construction of new projects or activities or expansion or modernization of existing projects only after prior environmental clearance from the authorities as prescribed. The Schedule to the Notification includes Highways at Item No. 7 (f ) i.e., new national highways and expansion of national highways greater than 30 kms. involving additional right of way greater than 20 mts. of land acquisition and passing through more than one state require prior environmental clearance. Later, the Notification was amended in the year 2009 and item 7 (f ) was substituted as "expansion of National Highways greater than 100 kms. involving additional right of way or land acquisition greater than 40 mts. on existing alignments and 60 mts. on realignment or bypasses."
ISSUE IN QUESTION
Whether the notifications dated 14.09.2006 and 22.08.2013 are applicable to the Project in question as far as environmental clearances are concerned.
OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS OF THE COURT
Firstly, the bench observed that there is no ambiguity or scope for any doubt in the reading of Item No. 7 (f ) of the Notification which states that expansion of a national highway needs prior environmental clearance in two cases: (i) expansion is greater than 100 kms, and (b) it involves additional right of way or land acquisition greater than 40 mts. on existing alignments and 60 mts. on re-alignments and bypasses.
It further observed that full effect has to be given to every word of the Notification and that interpreting the notification dated 22.08.2013 to mean that every expansion of national highway, which is greater than 100 km, requires prior environmental clearance would render the other words redundant.
The bench then went on to examine the arguments taken by the parties before the High Court. In view of the bifurcation of the NH-45A into four different packages and each package being less than 100 kms. it was contended by NHAI before the High Court that the aforementioned notifications were not applicable. It was further contended by the learned Attorney General that the division of the project was a decision of the Central Government and NHAI was only an executing agency and the same had been done in public interest. However, the High Court relied on the judgments of the United States District Court of the state of Indiana2 and European Court of Justice3 to hold that the segmentation of a project as a strategy to avoid environmental clearance is impermissible. The High Court also relied upon another judgment4 to reject the contention of NHAI that the division of the project was for administrative expediencies. It went on to hold that if the segmentation is permitted, it would in effect lead to the notifications becoming a dead letter as every national highway can be divided to avoid environmental clearance.
Stressing upon the need to balance the economic development and preservation of environment, the bench relied upon the judgment of Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action Vs. Union of India5 to observe that' "there should not be development at the cost of environment and vice versa, but there should be development while taking due care and ensuring the protection of the environment". It further noted that "apart from providing a smooth flow of public goods and services which contribute to the economic growth, highways also benefit regional development in the country. In the normal course, impediments should not be created in the matter of National Highways, which provide the much-needed transportation infrastructure. At the same time, protection of the environment is important". Thus, the bench held that the exemption provided by the notification dated 22.08.2013 will be rendered redundant if the segmentation as a strategy was allowed for evading environmental clearance as per the notifications.
As for the question of permissibility and extent of the segmentation of a national highway beyond a distance of 100 kms., the bench observed that the same needs to be examined by an expert committee to be constituted by the Government of India.
Moving on to the issue of whether the toll plazas fall within the permissible limits specified in the notification dated 22.08.2013, the bench examined the definition of 'Right of Way' as provided under Para 2.3 of the Manual of Specifications and Standards for two-laneing of Highways through public private partnerships. It observed that 'Right of Way' means that total land width required for the project highway to accommodate the right of way, side drains, service roads, tree plantations, utilities etc, toll plazas and rest houses should be included in the right of way. Hence, Right of Way includes existing national highway and the additional right of way.
In conclusion, the bench allowed the appeal holding that no environment clearance was required for the Project as land acquisition was not more than 40 mts. on existing alignments and 60 mts. on realignment or bypasses. However, NHAI was directed to strictly conform to the Notification in the matter of acquisition of land being restricted to 40 mts. on the existing alignments and 60 mts. on realignments, and to fulfill the requirement of re-afforestation in accordance with the existing legal regime. Further, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India to constitute an expert committee to examine the issue of segmentation of highway beyond a distance of 100 kms and if yes, under what circumstances.
The main purpose of introducing the aforementioned Notifications is to place greater responsibility on planners and investors to choose ecologically feasible technologies and environmentally compatible options. The Indian courts have repeatedly emphasized upon the need to protect the environment while taking steps for economic development. Hence, the Supreme Court rightly directed the authorities to conform to the Notifications, however declined to make observations upon the permissibility of segmentation of a national highway beyond 100 kms. The direction of the bench to form an expert committee comes at an apt time since protection and preservation of the environment is the need of the hour, more so in light of the ongoing pandemic and the consequent world-wide crisis. It is anticipated that such a direction of the court to the Central Government to form the committee will bring a positive outcome, bringing the much-needed clarity on these issues.
1. Civil Appeal Nos. 4035-4037 of 2020, decided on 19.01.2021.
2. Old Town Neighborhood Association Vs. Kauffman ( S.D. Ind. 2002), Case No. 1:02-cv-1505-DFH
3. Commission of European Communities Vs. Kingdom of Spain C-227/001
4. Deepak Kumar Vs. State of Haryana (2012) 4 SCC 629
5. (1996) 5 SCC 281
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