The Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court has disapproved of wildlife activists opposing the National Highway (NH) widening project. During the hearing on Thursday, Justice Bhushan Gavai asked “if development can be stalled by a few white collared environmentalists.” The matter had earlier been slated for hearing on September 16.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) and HC had been opposing each other on the issue of Maharashtra Forest Department allowing felling of trees along the 37-km stretch between Mansar in Nagpur district and Khawasa in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh that cuts through what is regarded by wildlife experts as India’s most vital wildlife and tiger corridor. The NH7 stretch passes through the eco-sensitive zone of Pench Tiger Reserve (PTR) and the proposed four-laning will entail cutting of thousands of trees.
The NGT, which ordered stay on allowance to fell trees, had last week issued showcause to Forest Department and National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) as to why it should not initiate contempt proceedings for continuing to fell trees despite its order.
The Forest Department and NHAI appealed to Justice Gavai to stay the NGT show-cause order. Justice Gavai posted the matter for hearing on September 11. The HC warned of initiating contempt proceeding against NGO Srushti Paryavaran Mandal that had moved the NGT along with two other NGOs, Conservation Action Trust (CAT) and Nature Conservation Society (NCS), against the Forest Department allowing tree felling. “What you are doing is bench-hunting,” Gavai said to Srushti lawyer Tushar Mandlekar.
Justice Gavai has been asserting the superiority of HC over NGT, saying, “HC is a constitutional body while NGT is a statutory body.”
Justice Gavai said the HC is monitoring the implementation of multiple NH widenings and wondered whether NGT will stay all of them. Widening of NHs, if stopped, would have an adverse impact on development of rural areas, he added.
He said he had passed several pro-environment orders in the past in cases of Tadoba, Melghat and Pench, but now the court was being projected as against the environment.
The NH7 widening issue that started off as a tussle between the Forest Department and NHAI has seen several turns over measures suggested by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for mitigation of wildlife to be affected by the four-laning work. Starting with flyovers of up to 12 km, WII scaled down its suggestion of three flyovers of 1.8 km.