Though the bulk of pending cases in India’s courts involve one government department or another, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) filing a case against the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) takes this to an altogether new level. With at least two high-profile contractors—GMR Group and GVK Group—walking out of projects where they had promised to pay NHAI R12,000 crore on an NPV basis, NHAI’s future plans are in serious trouble. As it points out in its petition, work on more than 22 projects it has awarded has not started due to its inability to get environment clearances—under the contracts, NHAI has to get these clearances. NHAI’s petition talks of MoEF being unreasonable in asking for a forest clearance (FC) before a project gets the larger environment clearance (EC). While this is the norm for all projects, and in keeping with an SC ruling, NHAI argues road projects are different as they don’t require large cutting of forests—the projects just involve widening of existing roads.
While two ministries are entitled to have different points of view, what’s alarming is that these issues were brought up at top levels of the government and, according to NHAI, a decision was taken that an exception be made in the case of roads—that way, NHAI argues, work on the roads could start with an environment clearance even if the forest clearances were not available for certain stretches. But despite this, NHAI says, MoEF hasn’t done anything—MoEF, for its part, denies any such decision by the government. If, despite the matter being flagged to very senior levels, the government cannot sort out the issue, and the matter has to be left to the courts, we’re talking of a very serious governance crisis. The sort the Cabinet Committee on Investments (CCI) was set up to resolve. Well, it has its first case now.