Year 2008. As its proposal for four-laning of NH7 between Seoni (Madhya Pradesh) and Nagpur (Maharashtra) faced scrutiny, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) told a Supreme Court panel that it was ready to build a 9.3-km flyover over the Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh so that wildlife movements are not disturbed.
Year 2014. Once the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) had cleared the MP stretch of the project, NHAI said it could afford only a 1-km flyover. By 2015, the plan had been further downsized to building just a few ecoducts (landscaping above the carriageway for wildlife movement) of unspecified length.
For the Maharashtra stretch, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 2012 proposed 5.56 km of underpasses. This February, Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said 3-4 underpasses of 50 m each would suffice.
The total proposed reduction, therefore, was 92% — from 14.86 km of road length to less than 1.2 km — in the mitigation plan. The numbers sum up the growth-versus-green debate playing out in one of India’s most bizarre logjams in project implementation.
Tiger Way or Highway
The NHAI’s initial proposal to build a 9.3-km flyover was rejected by the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which in 2009 backed the recommendation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for an alternative alignment through Chhindwara by widening and upgrading existing state
NHAI refused to accept the plan, which involved a detour of around 70 km. As the deadlock continued, the NHAI reduced the forest land requirement in a fresh proposal in 2012. In its review, the WII proposed a series of flyovers adding up to 11.86 km — 6.3 km in MP and 5.56 km in Maharashtra — and of at least 7 m height. NHAI rejected the report, saying the flyovers would double the project cost.
The WII report also evaluated the proposed wildlife passageways for their openness index — calculated by height and distance (length and width) — which determines animals of what size may venture in. Of the 10 underpasses proposed in Maharashtra, only three were open enough for Indian bisons, and five for cheetals.
Even though Maharashtra accepted the 2012 WII report, it appointed, in January 2015, a new committee with members from the NHAI and the WII. This panel reduced the number of flyovers to 9, and their total length to 2.70 km. It also lowered the height to just 4.5 m, making 7 of the 9 structures unsuitable for large mammals. The NHAI said the cost was still too high.
Tribunal versus High Court
Following orders of the Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court, which took suo motu cognisance of media reports on the poor condition of roads, a panel comprising Gadkari, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis proposed 3-4 50-m underpasses in the Maharashtra stretch of the project. The proposal outraged conservationists, as none of these tunnel-like structures could be of any use to large animals.
Under pressure, the government appointed yet another panel with experts from the WII and NTCA. Following a rapid two-week survey, this panel submitted its report in May. It proposed 9 underpasses, but cut their cumulative length from 2.70 km to 2.20 km, and set the height at 5 m. Which meant that 6 of the proposed structures could not be used by any mammal larger than the cheetal.
The NHAI remained reluctant, as implementing the proposed measures would require Rs 98 cr over and above its mitigation budget of Rs 122 cr. At the NBWL meeting this August, however, the agency agreed to construct all 9 structures.
Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal stayed work on the project pending final forest clearance — and pulled up the Environment Ministry for exempting the project from NBWL clearance. In Nagpur, the HC issued a series of orders for prompt implementation of the stalled project. The two courts kept passing contradictory orders until the HC overruled the NGT over jurisdiction this September.
Growth versus Green
After Maharashtra notified the final forest clearance in September, NGO Conservation Action Trust (CAT) challenged it at NGT. CAT also filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court in October, seeking a resolution of the conflict between the NGT and the HC over jurisdiction. The apex court will hear the case today.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court had ordered that NHAI’s fresh proposals for widening NH7 “should be considered on merit” alone. It will now decide whether the NGT can examine the merit of the summary rejection of the alternative alignment, if petty bickering is worth stalling projects of national importance, and if a few hundred crores is unreasonable expenditure when it comes to securing one of India’s finest clusters of contiguous forests.
LONG, TWISTY ROAD
2008: Wildlife Trust of India approaches SC’s CEC against project
2009: CEC recommends realignment of NH7 via Chhindwara. NHAI rejects report
2011: After hearings in SC, MoEF asks NHAI to revise proposal
2012: NHAI reduces forest land requirement. WII proposes mitigation plan; NHAI rejects
2013: Nagpur Bench of Bombay HC gets involved
2014: MoEF exempts project from obtaining NBWL nod; grants Stage I forest clearance. Project’s MP stretch gets NBWL nod
2015: In Jan, second MoEF circular exempts linear projects from NBWL clearance. In Feb, MoEF circulars challenged before NGT, which stays tree felling. But HC directs state to allow tree felling by Feb 28. In May, NGT stays tree-felling permission granted by Maharashtra. In Aug, NGT asks MoEF how project was exempted from NBWL clearance, seeks assurance that no trees will be cut till next hearing. Caught between two courts, Maharashtra exempts NH7 from NGT guidelines. In Sep, after Maharashtra allows NHAI to resume felling trees, NGT threatens to initiate contempt proceedings. HC stays NGT order over jurisdiction rights. In Oct, NGT adjourns hearing on appeal against final forest clearance. NGO moves SC to resolve jurisdiction issue
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