NHAI to move apex court over MoEF lethargy

Written by Timsy Jaipuria | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 1 2013, 07:29am hrs
Upset over the failure of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to frame forest clearance norms as directed by the Supreme Court and the resultant delays in road projects, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is planing to take up the matter with the court afresh. The authoritys move comes after it secured a favourable opinion from both the law ministry and the Cabinet secretariat, official sources told FE.

Delays in environmental approvals usually attributed to the existing policy of linking the same to forest clearances and procedural issues have affected implementation of national highway projects worth R23,000 crore. This is at a time the Prime Ministers Office and finance ministry are asking all wings of the government to make concerted efforts to speed up infrastructure projects to accelerate economic growth.

Allowing French cement major Lafarge to mine limestone in the forests of Meghalayas East Khasi hills, the court had in a July 2011 judgement asked the government to set up a national environment regulator and said till this was done, an interim arrangement would be put in place by the MoEF in consultation with states. The idea was to lay down comprehensive guidelines for forest clearances. However, the MoEF hasnt fully complied with the court order as yet, sources in the NHAI, alleged, adding the MoEF was reminded of the issue several times in recent months.

In a meeting between the ministry of finance, the ministry of road transport and highways, the NHAI and the environment ministry a few days ago, the authority specifically informed the MoEF that the NHAI would consider invoking the SC judgment if forest and environmental clearances are not de-linked.

Sources said in case of many big highway projects, forest clearances are relevant for only small stretches but the whole projects get stuck as forest clearances precede final environmental approvals.

The NHAI and roads ministry secretary expressed the view that the Forest Conservation Act is not applicable to road-side plantation and informed that the proposal has been forwarded to environment ministry suggesting that forest clearance (FC) be de-linked from environment clearance (EC) for road projects so as to expedite the process of (EC). In the context of the Supreme Court judgment in the Lafarge case, it was informed by secretary, roads ministry and NHAI chairman that if required, SC would be approached to review the judgment to delink the forest clearance from environment clearance for road projects, an official said, citing the minutes of a recent meeting. MoEF officials refused to comment on the issue.

Sources further said a meeting in this regard with the roads ministry and NHAI had a meeting with law secretary DR Meena on the issue recently. The two have also initiated discussions on the matter in a meeting of committee of secretaries. The law secretary has also given an opinion in favour of the roads ministry and has asked the environment ministry to delink EC and FC. He also said that there is no violation of the Forest Conservation Act in projects extending roads, cutting the road-side plantation, said a senior road ministry official. He added that NHAI being an autonomous body is well equipped to invoke the Lafarge judgment and drag the environment ministry to the Supreme Court. The cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth is learnt to have written to the environment ministry asking for the current status of the issue.


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