Waive gram sabha nod for widening of roads: NHAI plea to SC

Written by Indu Bhan | Indu Bhan | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 12 2013, 06:51am hrs
The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which took the ministry of environment and forests to the Supreme Court earlier in the week accusing it of causing delays in road projects, on Friday made another plea seeking removal of mandatory approvals from gram sabhas for national highway widening projects involving diversion of only protected forests.

There are other kinds of forests community-owned, private and reserved. In protected forests, the human-animal overlap is the highest.

The NHAI also sought a direction to environment ministry to dispense with the requirement of prior approval/no-objection certificate from gram sabhas in respect of land acquired for construction of roads on which plantation has been done by the forest department in the right of way for highway projects.

Prior approval/NoC was mandated by the ministry in such cases through a July 2009 letter.

As reported earlier, the authority had moved the apex court on Wednesday seeking modification of its guidelines mandating forest clearance prior to environmental clearance, saying such procedure has delayed and stalled 22 important projects over worth R20,000 crore. In the plea, the NHAI had noted the ministry's failure to act as per the law ministry's advice seeking modifications in the court's July 2011order.

Due to the long and cumbersome process of obtaining NoCs from all the gram sabhas of affected villages, which delays the forest clearance, even obtaining environmental clearance has become very difficult, the authority stated, adding that several of its road projects are on the verge of termination.

(GMR Infra recently terminated its agreement with NHAI for the 555-km Kishangarh-Udaipur-Ahmedabad Highway project alleging delays in approvals, particularly the NHAI's failure to get the necessary environment clearance for one of the tunnels along the highway.)

As per Section 3(2) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, it is mandatory for the central government to provide clearances for forest diversion for projects involving laying down of roads subject to recommendation from a village panchayat/gram sabha of the village concerned. The 2006 Act has been made effective from January 2008 by the environment ministry through the letter cited above.

This in effect means that in every project of the authority which passes through a forest, NoCs/permissions from all the gram sabhas which are affected would be required to be taken, even where only a small stretch of forest area is involved, NHAI stated.

Urging that it has utmost regard and concern for the preservation of the environment and forests, NHAI said it was only seeking a necessary clarification so that projects of national importance are not hampered and delayed.

...wherever reserved forests are involved in respect of projects involving widening of national highways, the authority undertakes to comply with all the requirements and conditions as laid down and made applicable by the MoEF, the application filed through NHAI chief general manager (land acquisition) VK Sharma stated.

Further, it may be noted that no scheduled tribes or traditional forest dwellers have been known to reside in the right of way of national highways, hence their dwelling rights are also not affected, NHAI said.