AT A time when land is under scrutiny in J&K, with lists of alleged beneficiaries under the contentious Roshni Act being compiled, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has cleared a proposal from the J&K Law and Justice Department to build a new High Court complex on 40.66 hectares, or around 100 acres, inside Jammu city’s Bahu Conservation Reserve — a year after Forest officials red-flagged a key component.
The NBWL clearance, which clears the decks for the project, came last month.
The project proposal had earmarked at least 20 per cent of the built-up area for judges’ and judicial staff accommodation. But on October 15, 2019, two weeks before J&K officially split into two Union Territories, the then state Forest Department had placed the proposal before the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) on the condition that “forest land shall not be allowed for the construction of residential Building/Colony”. The project, however, went ahead without any modification in land requirement.
Alongside Ramnagar wildlife sanctuary, Bahu conservation reserve serves as the green belt of Jammu city. Both reserves were notified as protected forest in 1981. “These are the two lungs of the Jammu city with the Tawi river flowing between them as the duct. Damaging this system will affect the local air quality, hydrology and temperature. Besides, the existing court building is only 15 years old,” said C M Seth, former chief wildlife warden and member of the J-K Biodiversity Council.
The project note prepared by the J&K Law and Justice Department shows that the land being sought is about ten-fold of what is shown as the actual requirement on record.
According to the note, the total built-up area in low and mid-rise buildings would require a “ground coverage” of 25,000-50,000 sq m — 2.5-5 hectares — allowing for expansion over the next 40 years. But what has been sought is a total requirement of 250,000 sq m — 25 hectares —with 80 per cent open space for “tree-covered surface parking”, etc.
The accompanying application for forest clearance further raises the requirement to 40.66 hectares. That is twice the expanse of the campuses of the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi High Court that together cover around 21 hectares, or 51 acres, after multiple expansions.
J-K Law and Justice Secretary Achal Sethi did not respond to multiple calls, emails and messages sent across a week by The Indian Express seeking comment on a number of questions that the proposal raises: why was requirement increased from 25 hectares to 40 hectares; why was it not reduced following the bar on the project’s residential component; and whether officials considered the accepted principle of keeping forest land requirement to the minimum.
The project plan submitted by the J&K Law and Justice Department on October 11, 2019, contains a break-up of the total built-up area of 90,000-100,000 sq m, including 10,000 sq m each for “judges accommodation for 35 judges” and “staff accommodation for judicial administration”.
On October 15, 2019, the Forest Department placed the proposal before the then FAC and recorded its objection — but did not call for any reassessment of the land requirement. The FAC approved the proposal subject to clearance from the state wildlife board, which gave its nod on October 23, 2019.
From proposal to state-level clearances, the project was through in just 12 days before J&K became a Union Territory on October 31, 2019.
In November 2019, two students from Jammu moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) challenging the project. The Tribunal relied on a report filed by the J&K Forest Department “to the effect that due process of law has been followed” and disposed of the application. A review petition remains pending.
In June 2020, the proposal for “expansion of judicial infrastructure” on 40.66-hectare forest land with 38,000 trees of various girth was placed before the NBWL, which gave the green signal within four months.
When contacted, J-K principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) Mohit Gera declined to comment on why his Department did not seek any reduction in the project’s land requirement at any stage. “I don’t have anything to say as the project has been cleared,” he said.