The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the notification for acquisition of land for the Rs 10,000-crore Chennai-Salem eight-lane green corridor project and said that the Centre and NHAI may proceed to acquire land for constriction of the highway.
The top court, in its verdict, however, dismissed the appeal of land owners against the acquisition of their land for the project.
The apex court’s verdict came on a batch of appeals filed by the Centre and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and few land owners and others including PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss.
These pleas were filed against the Madras High Court’s judgement, delivered on April 8, 2019, holding as “illegal and bad in law” the notifications issued under Section 3A(1) of the National Highways Act for acquisition of specified lands for construction of the new highway which was part of the larger “Bharatmala Pariyojna– Phase I5” project.
A bench of Justices A M Khanwilkar, B R Gavai and Krishna Murari partly allowed the appeals of the Centre and the NHAI to the extent of quashing of the notification to acquire land for the highway project by the Madras High Court and gave its nod to again proceed with the process.
“The impugned judgment and order is modified. The challenge to impugned notifications under Sections 2(2) and 3A of the 1956 Act, respectively, is negative. The Central Government and/or NHAI may proceed further in the matter in accordance with law for acquisition of notified lands for construction of a national highway for the proposed section/stretch,” the judgement said.
The ambitious 277.3-km-long eight-lane greenfield project aims to cut travel time between the two cities Chennai and Salem by half to about two hours and 15 minutes.
However, it has been facing opposition from a section of locals, including farmers, over fears of losing their land, besides environmentalists who are against felling trees for it.
The project runs through reserve forest and water bodies.
Justice Khanwilkar, writing the 140-page verdict for the bench, agreed with the High Court’s judgement directing the revenue authorities to restore the mutation entries effected in favour of the NHAI merely on the basis of notification issued under the NHAI Act.
“By virtue of notification under Section 3A of the 1956 Act, neither the acquiring body nor the NHAI had come in possession of the concerned land nor the land had vested in them, so as to alter the mutation entry in their favour. To that extent, we agree with the High Court that until the acquisition process is completed and possession of land is taken, the question of altering the mutation entry merely on the basis of notification under Section 3A of the 1956 Act cannot be countenanced and, therefore, the earlier entries ought to be restored,” it held.
The verdict said that it has not expressed “any opinion either way on the correctness and validity of the permissions or clearances accorded by the competent authorities under the environment and forest laws.
It said that the orders granting permissions under the environment and forest laws were not the subject matter or the issues before the High Court and hence, it would be open to the affected persons to question the validity before the appropriate forum, it said.
The bench said that it did not wish to deal with the judgements relied upon and the effect that the Project of this nature may have environmental impact and ought not to be taken forward.
“We have not examined the efficacy of the permissions/clearances granted by the competent authority under the environment or forest laws, as the case may be. If those permissions/clearances are assailed, only then the decisions (previous judgements) may be looked at,” it said.
Referring to judgements mentioned on legality of grant of environmental clearance to projects, the top court said that in those cases it was called upon to “examine the challenge in the context of permissions given by the competent authority under the environment laws.”
The apex court praised lawyers for their able assistance in dealing with bulky files that too in hearings conducted through video conferencing due to ongoing pandemic.
Earlier, the high court’s order had come on a batch of petitions filed by 35 land owners and PMK leader Ramadoss. They had challenged the land acquisition proceedings.
The high court had made clear that grant of prior environmental clearance would undoubtedly require a thorough study of the area and before that, a public hearing was needed to be conducted.
It had also held as “unsatisfactory” the project report of a consultant and said it needed to be scrapped.
It had said unless a proper study was made, the impact on the forest lands, water bodies, wildlife, flora and fauna cannot be assessed.
Environmental clearance was mandatory since the project would have an adverse impact on the environment, including water bodies, it had said.