The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) as to how it will defend the Rs 10,000 crore eight-lane Salem-Chennai highway, a part of the ”Bharatmala Pariyojana”, which is a scheme envisaged to cut the travel time between the two cities by half.
The NHAI argued that this green corridor road project, nearly 277.kms-long is categorized as being of national importance, and the Madras High Court was not correct in approving the quashing of the land acquisition process for the project.
Making an observation on the project, a bench headed by Justice N.V. Ramana said “You have to defend it in the next hearing.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing NHAI, said the High Court identified factually incorrect reasons where prior environmental clearance (EC) was identified as mandatory by the High Court.
“First, if we obtain environmental clearance first and then go for land acquisition. It will be similar to put the cart before the horse and there is no dispute that EC is required before construction begins for the project,” Mehta contended before the court.
Advocate Sanjay Parekh representing the farmers, who approached the high court challenging land acquisition, contended the project passes over several prominent water bodies and cuts across a mountain therefore mandatory norms have to be followed by authorities concerned.
“Initially the project was supposed to connect Chennai and Madurai, for this there no EC required, but later the route was changed and it became Salem-Chennai,” argued Parekh.
The project has faced opposition from locals, including farmers, over the process of land acquisition, besides environmentalists who protested against felling of trees.
The court observed that there are two important points on this issue – one is EC and the other is change in the route from Chennai-Madurai to Chennai-Salem.
“We will decide on the law,” said the court. Mehta was asked by the court to prepare a flowchart citing legal queries and also the factual matrix on the matter.
The court told Mehta that there is a finding of the High Court, which says this project is not part of the Bharatmala project.
The next hearing on the matter is scheduled on September 4. The NHAI had moved the top court challenging the High Court which observed the grant of prior EC would undoubtedly require a complete study of the area under the project, and before that a public hearing was also required.
The High Court in its order made sharp observations, such as, if the highway was to go through a reserve forest area then it would become an enabling factor for poachers, illegal felling and its transportation.