By Sumit Saxena
New Delhi, Feb 3 : Emphasising on the need to protect the environment from various developmental hazards, the Supreme Court on Wednesday criticised the rule for no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for road projects up to 100 kms. The Chief Justice emphasised the true value of trees need to rationalised and their cost should be built into the cost of the project.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian was astonished to learn that there is no requirement of EIA for road stretches below 100 km.
The Chief Justice said: “Show us the law which says this why it (EIA) is not necessary?” When counsel said that it was a government rule, the Chief Justice replied: “We would like to question this notification (no EIA for road stretches up to 100 kms). You cannot destroy the environment by cutting down trees. Prima facie, we do not consider it to be tenable. We will ask somebody to challenge it, or will issue notice.”
The top court emphasised that the whole environment is for everybody. Citing the flaws in the rule, the bench said it is not correct to go by the assumption that in a 100 km project, there would not be any damage to the environment. “We do not agree that if the project is less than 100 km, you don’t need EIA,” it reiterated.
The Centre’s counsel then clarified that state governments are supposed to decide on the EIA for road projects below 100 kms.
The observation from the Chief Justice came during the hearing of a petition opposing felling of hundreds of heritage trees by the West Bengal government near Kolkata and the Bangladesh border for the construction of a railway overbridge (ROB).
The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), which moved the top court against tree felling for the project, had said the agencies concerned did not explore the alternatives and the permission was granted to fell heritage trees, which were aged around 80-100 years. The top court had appointed a four-member expert committee in January last year to examine the matter which included heritage trees on Jessore Road.
Citing the cost/benefit analysis of cutting down 300 trees, the committee said: “The cost of micro nutrients + compost + biofertilizer + oxygen for 300 trees felled 100 years before their natural age is Rs 2.2 billion, which is more 2x the cost of the project. In this computation, the cost of the tree products is held at current prices and the real value over time would obviously be much higher than Rs 2.2 billion.”
The Chief Justice cited this value of trees to advocate Prashant Bhushan, who was representing APDR, and asked him to draw a protocol where governments explore possibility of using either railway or waterways, instead of cutting trees.
“The value of each tree has to be rationalised, and the cost of trees should be included in the built into the cost of the project,” noted the bench. The bench also remarked the aspect translocation of trees should also be explored.
At this stage of the matter, Bhushan cited the non-requirement of EIA for roads below 100 kms and the court made critical remarks against this rule.
Bhushan said when such projects are sanctioned, an EIA is carried out and it is taken into account for giving an environmental clearance. The bench queried: “Can you still give us a note on protocol showing provisions of environmental law?
It also if the government decides to ‘Go East’, then why not consider the existing sea routes and railway network, instead of felling trees. The top court has scheduled the matter for further hearing on February 18.