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Gujarat HC: ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel must provide double the land in lieu of forest area

The HC was hearing a PIL on non-adherence of conditions to be fulfilled upon diversion of forest land

The PIL moved by Biren Padhya, an NRI, had raised a grievance regarding flouting of conditions imposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in 2013 in relation to the diversion of a parcel of ‘reserved forest land’ measuring 20.76 hectares in Hazira, Surat.

The Gujarat High Court in a public interest litigation concerning non-adherence of certain mandatory conditions that an agency is required to fulfil upon diversion of forest land to it, directed that ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Ltd “must be asked to provide double the land area to compensate the loss of forest land instead of equivalent area of land.”

Noting that conservation of forest “shall never be sacrificed,” the verdict, dated October 6, by the division bench of Justices JB Pardiwala and VD Nanavati states, “We once again reiterate that the State Government shall ensure that forest land shall be allotted in accordance with the policy only to the industries with credentials and not indiscriminately. Only genuine proposals of the existing port-based industries at Hazira for industrial/port infrastructure, ie, environment-friendly storage and transportation of gaseous liquid and solid raw materials and products of Hazira Industrial Area should receive priority in accordance with the policy of the State. We once again reiterate that the State Government, in order to ensure that while development must be facilitated, the conservation of forest shall never be sacrificed…The User Agency must be asked to provide double the land area to compensate the loss of forest land instead of equivalent area of land.”

The PIL moved by Biren Padhya, an NRI, had raised a grievance regarding flouting of conditions imposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in 2013 in relation to the diversion of a parcel of ‘reserved forest land’ measuring 20.76 hectares in Hazira, Surat. A proposal was made by the user agency – ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Ltd – for diversion of the land for construction of housing accommodation and allied facilities in 2008. The Centre accorded in-principle approval to the proposal in June 2013, but no formal approval has been granted to the user agency in respect of this land.

The MoEF conditions stipulated that compensatory afforestation shall be taken up by the Forest department over 20.76 hectares of non-forest land in Sanada village in Bhavnagar at the cost of the user agency and the non-forest land shall be notified as reserved forest. It was also stipulated that penal compensatory afforestation of over 41.52 hectares of degraded forest land at Kanji village in Vyara taluka of Tapi – double the land amount sought by ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Ltd – will be raised at the cost of the user agency. The user agency also had to provide 110 hectares of non-forest land in “Lion Corridor” area, suitable as lion habitat in Sanada village and as CSR, the user agency had to deposit “2.5 times of the market value prevailing in 2006 for the area in “Lion Conservation Society”,” among several other conditions.

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According to the status of the compliance submitted before the court and as recorded in the court’s judgment, compliance by the user agency with respect to the condition of compensatory afforestation taken up by the Forest Department over 20.76 hectares of non-forest land in Sanada village in Bhavnagar at the cost of the user agency, was pending and “and several reminders have been issued by the State authorities, starting from the year 2014 to the latest, being communication dated 06.08.2021.”

Compliance of the condition of providing 110 hectares of non-forest land in “Lion Corridor” area at the cost of the user agency too was pending and similarly, “several reminders have been issued by the State authorities, starting from the year 2014 to the latest, being communication dated 06.08.2021.” This condition’s non-compliance was also admitted to by the user agency. The petitioner had also pointed out to the court that the State was “silent on the slag dumping, illegal construction and encroachment on forest land as alleged and the action taken by the Forest Department” following registration of a First Offence Report under provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 in March 2021 against ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel Limited for violation of conditions with respect to two parcels of forest land in Hazira allotted to the user agency earlier, for setting up of a power plant and for construction of raw material facilities and utilities, respectively.

With respect to these grievances, the court recorded in its judgment, “The State Government as well as the Union (of India) has assured this Court that the aforesaid shall also be taken into consideration and the needful shall be done in accordance with law.”

Notably, 10 proposals of diversion of a total of 149.2147 hectares of forest land in Hazira to user agencies such as Shell India Pvt Ltd, Essar Steel India Ltd, Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, Hazira LNG Pvt Ltd, and Essar Power Transmission Co Ltd, have received final approvals from the central government between 2001 and 2021.

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