The tussle between the environment ministry and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) over who caused the alleged delays in approvals in highway projects came to a head on Tuesday with the NHAI threatening to take the ministry to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, accusing it of failure to comply with an earlier court directive to de-link forest and environmental clearances.
NHAIs move, which has few precedents as it involves two arms of the government battling it out in the apex court, comes a day after GMR Infrastructure walked out of the Kishangarh-Ahmedabad expressway project, alleging delays in requisite approvals.
Seeking to avoid the blame, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan lashed out at the NHAI and said it submitted incomplete application on behalf of GMR for getting a green nod for the 555-km expressway project. FE had earlier reported that the GVK Group too had threatened to withdraw from the 330-km long Shivpuri-Dewas highway in Madhya Pradesh, citing delays in environmental clearances. While GMR says the Gujarat government did not furnish complete information for the expansion of the expressway to the environment ministry, Natarajan said that roads minister CP Joshi had written to her only on January 1 to expedite the approval process. Even as I speak, the information is incomplete. I need at least 10 days to put the information on the website for stakeholders to raise objections, she said.
On the issue of de-linking of forest and environment clearances, she maintained that this cannot be done. The minister added that she was not aware of any (inter-ministerial) meeting where a decision was taken to de-link the two approvals. Environment and forest clearances go hand in hand, she asserted.
NHAI sources, however, said that they had secured a favourable opinion from both the law ministry and the Cabinet secretariat on the de-linking issue.
While the NHAI is set to approach the court, sources said the Cabinet secretariat might intervene to end the dispute between two wings of the government. The ministry of road transport and highways, the administrative ministry for NHAI, would also be roped in for an amicable resolution. Meanwhile, according to the road ministry and NHAI, out of 39 major projects each worth Rs 1,000 crore above 20 are stuck due to delays in forest and environment clearances.
For road projects, the environment ministry gives environmental clearances only after forest clearances are obtained. This, according to NHAI, is the root cause of delays of all highway projects. Even if the ministry returns the incomplete application to the state government, a project doesnt lapse. Once the complete application is received with the required maps, surveys and lat-long grids, the ministry studies it for 10 days.
Allowing the French cement major Lafarge to mine limestone in the forests of Meghalayas East Khasi hills, the court had in a July 2011 judgment asked the government to set up a national environment regulator and said that until this was done, an interim arrangement would be put in place by the ministry in consultation with states. The idea was to lay down the comprehensive guidelines for forest clearances. However, the environment ministry hasnt fully complied with the court order as yet, NHAI alleged, adding that the ministry was reminded of the issue several times in recent months.
An environment ministry official privy to the development said that while GVKs move to pull out of the Shivpuri-Dewas highway project was due to delays by the green ministry, GMR was exaggerating the alleged delays in approvals as the company did not give full information for the clearances to be given. The official further said almost 90% of the road projects get clearance without resulting in any allegations of delays.
The GMR Group on Monday informed the BSE that it has terminated the concession agreement with NHAI for the Kishangarh-Udaipur-Ahmedabad expressway,. The company had won the bid 16 months ago and in the concession agreement it had promised to pay NHAI over Rs 9,000 crore on a net present value basis. The company had also earlier issued a notice of intention to terminate the agreement to NHAI under clause 37.2 of the concession agreement.
Similarly, the GVK Group had written to NHAI that it wished to exit the 330-km Shivpuri-Dewas highway in Madhya Pradesh, promising to pay NHAI a little under Rs 3,000 crore (on an NPV basis, using a 10% annual discount) for the highway it was widening to four lanes, over a period of 30 years starting with a payment of Rs 190 crore in the first year, the payment was to be escalated by 5% in each subsequent year.