India's Largest Hydel Project: SC Asks Green Tribunal to Decide Objections Against Expert Committee Members

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New Delhi: Calling for a review, the Supreme Court has set aside an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) giving a go ahead to the Subansiri hydropower project, which was conceived as the country’s largest hydroelectric project planned by the NHPC on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

While it refrained from staying the execution of the project, the apex court made it clear that any step or recommendation made by the expert committee in this regard shall be subject to the outcome of the review.

The court found fault in the manner in which the NGT had brushed aside objections to the constitution of the expert committee to study the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project.

A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud noted that the green panel did not give any reasons while rejecting the objections raised by social activist Tularam Gogoi against the three-member committee, which included Prabhas Pandey, PM Scott and ID Gupta.

The NGT had in November and December last year junked the objections, paving the way for resumption of work at Lower Subansiri project on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Gogoi challenged this order in the top court. Appearing for Gogoi, advocate Anitha Shenoy put forth the grounds why the petitioner questioned the independence of the members of the expert committee.

Shenoy pointed out that all the three members of the expert committee had in the past either worked for, or were associated with organizations which had a recommendatory role and furnished views in regard to the Subansiri Lower Project.

According to the lawyer, Prabhas Pande had retired in 2011 as the Additional Director General of Geological Survey of India, which has been involved in investigations related to the Subansiri Lower project from its inception, including during Pande’s term.

Similarly, another member, PM Scott is currently the Chief Engineer of the Brahmaputra and Barak Basin, Central Water Commission (CWC), Shillong.

"The CWC has also been integrally involved in conceiving and reviewing the Subansiri Lower project right since the inception," contended Shenoy.

She further said that the profile of ID Gupta showed that since 1979, he has been working with the Central Water and Power Research Station in Pune, which has been involved in the design process of the Subansiri Lower at various stages since its inception.

Shenoy went on to show the NGT's order, arguing that the pertinent applications were summarily rejected by the NGT without specifying any reasons.

At this, the bench held: “We find considerable merit in the submissions which have been urged on behalf of the appellant by Ms Anitha Shenoy, learned counsel, that neither the earlier order dated 19 November, 2018 nor the impugned order dated 14 December, 2018 contains any reasons for rejecting the objection to the independence of the members of the Committee."

It also recorded a submission by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Central government, stating that the constitution of a new committee was not advisable at this stage since it would entail a delay of about a year in executing the project.

Mehta further said that the project was to be completed in 2010 and has already been plagued with delays.

The Court then said that it would be appropriate and proper if the objections raised by Gogoi are "reconsidered" by the Tribunal and a speaking order is passed.

"While we are not inclined to impede or interdict the work of the Committee in the meantime, any steps taken would abide by the result of the objections, which are permitted to be raised by the appellant before the Tribunal," it directed.

The bench, accordingly set aside the impugned order of the Tribunal, and asked it to re-examine the objections on merits.