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Courts turn battlefields in war between development and environment

With development-versus-environment disputes acquiring a new paradigm increasingly, the court of law has emerged as a battlefield to resolve such contentious issues.
Courts turn battlefields in war between development and environment

The latest case in point is the controversy over felling of trees in Aarey colony of Mumbai for construction linked to Metro rail project.

After protests against the project following clearance by the Bombay High Court, the matter landed in the Supreme Court earlier this week.

But this is not the first such case to reach the court of law for arbitration.

In August this year, the Supreme Court saw a matter related to the central government's 'Char Dham' project, which involved building of 900 kms of roads to connect four revered Hindu pilgrimage places of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath in Uttarakhand.

Dehradun-based 'Citizens for Green Doon', along with other environmentalists' group, moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT), contending that the fragile Himalayan region is vulnerable to such a massive project.

They told the tribunal that the project has not secured the mandatory environmental clearances.

However, NGT did not see the need for the environmental clearance and allowed the project to go ahead, but with stipulations.

The tribunal asked a seven-member committee of experts, headed by a former judge of the Uttarakhand Court, to supervise the environmental management plan.

The Supreme Court stayed the NGT order on technical grounds, although it gave credence to tribunal's order on setting up of an independent assessment committee, and allowed the project to continue. The top court recommended Ravi Chopra, Director of the Dehradun People's Science Institute, instead of a judge to head the committee.

The apex court has asked the committee to complete its assessment, on the cumulative impact on Himalayan ecology, in four months and submit its recommendation to the Road Transport Ministry within four months.

The committee will have representatives from the Department of Space, the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and a representative from the Ministry of Defence.

In another crucial matter, the apex court is poised to decide on National Highway Authority of India's Rs. 10,000 crore Salem-Chennai 8-lane green corridor road project.

The Madras High Court had quashed the land acquisition process on petitions that it would hurt the environment.

The Centre filed an appeal against the order in the Supreme Court, saying the 277.3 Km green field project connecting Salem and Chennai was of national importance as it aims to cut travel time between the two cities by half.

Advocate Sanjay Parekh, representing the farmers who approached the High Court challenging land acquisition, told the top court that the project passes over several prominent water bodies and cuts across a mountain, and it also involves tree felling.

Initially the project was supposed to connect Chennai and Madurai, for this there no Environmental Clearance was required, but later the route was changed and it became Salem-Chennai.

"The Chennai-Madurai did not involve massive tree felling, but Chennai-Salem has it. The environmental impact of development has to be carefully examined. Forests are not planted by human begins; rather the nature allows it to grow. It is a process, which involves hundreds of years", said Parekh.

This project has faced opposition from locals, including farmers, over the process of land acquisition, besides environmentalists who protested against felling of trees. The hearing on the matter is ongoing in the top court.

(Sumit Saxena can be contacted at sumit.s@.in)

( With inputs from IANS )

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